Panel of Techno-Optimists: The Shift to Social and Who’s Doing it Right

(L to R) David Carr of The New York Times, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, WaPoLabs Chief Strategist and Editor-at-Large Rob Malda, and Flipboard Editorial Director Josh Quittner.

In an event hosted by New York University’s Center for Publishing and the School of Continuing and Professional Studies last night, social media experts discussed the shift to social content and what that means for the media industry. Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, Rob Malda, chief strategist and editor-at-large of the WaPo Labs, and Josh Quittner, editorial director of Flipboard, opined under the moderation of the New York Times’ David Carr. The mood was decidedly optimistic—as Quittner said at one point, “I think we’re all techno-optimists on this panel.”

The Social Epiphany
The conversation started on the shift to social. “I don’t really surf anymore,” said Carr, “most of my content… comes from somewhere and it’s like this vast, human enabled RSS that is pushing things towards me.” According to Smith, there was a dramatic change between 2010 and 2011 in terms of BuzzFeed’s traffic. Within a year, their biggest referrer went from Google to Facebook. As people change their media habits from seeking content to more passively getting content in the form of their Facebook or Twitter feeds, will they be able to stay well-informed?

Quittner said that his epiphany on social came from the young, 20-somethings he works with. “I’m always trying to lord over them some fact or other about some far flung place on the planet, assuming that they won’t know anything about it because they didn’t read the front page of The New York Times,” he said. “They always know.”

“That’s the freaky part of our age is that I never seem to see my children necessarily consuming information, and yet they seem to know a lot,” said Carr. The days of reading a newspaper to stay informed are over, but how will media outlets adapt to these changes?

More than half the time we spend consuming information is through an app, pointed out Quittner, “I think that’s a really fundamental shift that’s occurred.” Though people no longer get their information from the traditional central channels, i.e. newspapers, there are new central channels where people start. “I think that’s why Zuckerberg paid a billion dollars for Instagram recently because there are so many people that are starting in apps, they’re not starting on the websites.”

A New Village Commons
“Do you worry that social is going to only end up telling us what we want to know?” asked Carr, referring to the much discussed filter bubble of Google and Facebook algorithms. The consensus was that there always has been the filter bubble in the form of choosing a cable news station to picking up a certain paper. “In Twitter you definitely see… people who are about engaging each other directly and transparently in a way that could never happen at MSNBC and FOX,” said Smith.

“So you think that social, if it works right, can sort of recreate the village commons?” asked Carr.

“Yeah, but not perfectly,” said Smith.

With all these new avenues for the dissemination of content, it can be tiring to keep up with them all. When Google Plus came around, Carr’s reaction was, “Oh God, am I gonna have to feed that thing too?!” Self-promotion has become much more important and effective with all the channels for sharing, making it much more of a prerequisite for being a journalist. As Quittner said of the pre-social age, “There were certainly self-promotional reporters, but it wasn’t part of the job description… your success didn’t hinge on whether you were putting yourself out on a billion different channels.”