Lessons for journalists from the demise of Friendster

The phrase “social media” had barely been coined, let alone popularized, when Friendster hit the scene in 2002. The first big social network was ground breaking … until it wasn’t. Now, as the once great site hangs on for life, it’s unplugging the relics of its early life, deleting the memories of its original user base as it reimagines itself and role online.

For years the site has been fighting a — let’s admit it, losing — battle, first to MySpace, then to Facebook, to Twitter, to Flickr, to YouTube, to FourSquare, to ? … well there’s the rub. There are too many social networks already here, as well as those fading and just emerging. At their core they all do the same thing: Connect people to each other’s ideas and allow them to share their personal experiences and interests. That sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Sort of like what journalists strive to do each day by connecting to readers/viewers/listeners with their stories, pictures and videos? Turns out, journalists can learn from social networks, and not just pop culture or breaking news, but also broader lessons about how to do their job. So knowing that all good things have an expiration date, at least on the Internet, here’s what journalists should realize and remember as they tiptoe through social networking topics.

It’s not about the medium

No industry ought to understand this better than journalism. Practically since there was conceived a profession called journalism, there’s been an onslaught of new mediums hell-bent on ending it. The radio was going to kill the newspaper, the TV the radio, the Internet the TV, the smartphone the Internet, and on and on. Turns out, there’s room at the table for all of them and they complement each other. The important thing to remember is a good story is a good story no matter its form, whether it’s a tweet or twenty-thousand word piece, the messages matters most. Some pieces are most compelling in written or spoken words, and some videos echo more than 10,000 words. Worry less about whether your news site is doing enough video and more about whether you’re telling enough of the right kinds of stories, to draw people together and make an impression.

You’re never an expert

When I was a kid of about 10, in the early days of the Internet, I used to chat daily on TheGlobe.com. I first learned to build a web page by stringing together the HTML tags I learned from others to get attention in those chat rooms. And from <font face=”comic sans” size=”20″ color=”magenta”>, I learned how to design professional-grade websites, which opened the gateway for me to blogging, forums and community building years before Blogger or Friendster or any of their protégé came on the scene. The wonderful thing, and hardest part, about the Internet is it’s always evolving. You’re never an expert because there is always a nook or tool you haven’t heard about, or a place or skill you haven’t yet mastered. The moment you stop trying things that sound stupid at first (read: Twitter), the moment you’ve surrendered to the tides and relegated yourself to behind the times. It can be hard to keep up, and you can allow yourself not to be swept up in the hype. Look at social media as a buffet with some old favorites and some exotic oddities. You don’t have room for everything at once, but you should’t turn something down without trying it at least once to assess its strengths, weaknesses and unique characteristics. You might find a new comfort food, or it may leave a bad taste in your mouth. Regardless your initial opinion, don’t be afraid to step back and try it again later; your tastes may mature or change.

Nothing is forever, but nothing should be forgotten

There are embarrassing things I posted as a preteen still archived on the Internet. By now, they’ve been buried, mostly, by my accomplishments since then. But I still find pleasure and amusement in perusing my old LiveJournal entries (remember them?) and reliving my budding web design skills by looking at pages from my first domain. None of these sites are still active but they’re still out there. I could have clung to my skill set and settled comfortably in when I mastered tables and frames in HTML and layers in Photoshop, but I didn’t. Many photojournalists were just settling into SoundSlides when video started going viral. Many reporters were just mastering crowd-sourcing on Facebook when Twitter started throwing real-time commentary into the mix. In both cases, the old skills form a foundation for the new ones, even if they don’t get used every day. It’s good to remember and revisit what’s already been done, but it’s more important to keep an eye open for what’s coming. Already somewhere in the outskirts of the web is the site or idea for the Facebook or Google killer. There are no government bailouts for websites too big to fail (at least not yet). When it comes, it will crib the best, most useful features of modern sites and combine them with things nobody knows they need yet. Your best preparation is to be open-minded and well versed in today’s top tools.

There’s no replacement for experimentation

Taken together, all of these points point to one of the most important skills a journalist of any stripe needs to succeed today and in the future: the ability — and willingness — to experiment. Complacency is only a few letters off from irrelevancy.