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Fight the urge to run away from social media

“The bad guys — the fake-news makers, bots, trolls, and scammers — will gladly take over the community organizer roles we leave vacant. They’re pretty good at this sort of thing.”

The news industry these past few years has been a middle schooler with low self-esteem, trailing around after the popular kids at Facebook, letting them copy our homework and take our lunch money in hopes that we might have some of that success rub off on us.

As in every teen movie ever made, this plan didn’t work. Hitching one’s proverbial wagon to social and technology platforms won’t ever make up for not having a viable business model. While it’s a good idea for news companies to rethink their business strategies with the likes of Facebook — journalists shouldn’t be so quick to jump ship altogether.

I’m friends with a lot of journalists on social media — too many, probably — and I’ve seen the flood of hand-wringing posts about “Why I’m leaving X social platform.” That’s taking the easy way out.

In 2019, we have to get back to the social part of social media or risk being left out of the conversation altogether. The bad guys — the fake-news makers, bots, trolls, and scammers — will gladly take over the community organizer roles we leave vacant. They’re pretty good at this sort of thing.

(Note: I’ll be the first to admit that I am a social media apologist. I have spent more than 10 years traveling the world like Harold Hill, selling Twitter and Facebook to the masses. Today, telling people I still use Facebook is like telling them how much I still love Kanye West.)

There are lot of good reasons not to trust the platforms. There’s the disinformation, the total decimation of the digital advertising market, the selling and misuse of user data, the crazypants palace intrigue, the turning a blind eye to abuse, etc.

As journalists, we need to get over all of that. Facebook and its subsidiary tools like Instagram and WhatsApp are where billions of people still come together, which means we still have to be there too.

You may find this hard to believe, but one time, journalists joined social media to talk to the audience. There was no advertising play, no payouts to produce videos, no thirsty posts to gin up metrics to impress the shareholders — just people talking to other people in their communities. It was a beautiful time to be alive.

The problem with that practice — then and now — is that it takes a lot of work to do well. It requires that we ask questions and also answer them, that we keep the peace, think carefully about what we share, update often, and most of all, always be paying attention.

So please, journalists, make this the year you delete your pending goodbye dissertations and get back into the conversation. If not you, someone else will.

Mandy Jenkins is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.

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