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Towards a rethinking of journalism on social media

“The people who own, manage, and shape them might go — but social media are not going away anytime soon.”

The time is right for a different approach to social media — 2019 might be the year publishers invest resources and focus on roles that can finally make a change.

Does this sound anachronistic?

2018 was the year of the big social media letdown. First came the Facebook algorithm change, which wiped off media pages from people’s newsfeeds. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the #deletefacebook campaign. Not to mention when Facebook was accused of lying about video statistics.

How about the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp? The Snapchat redesign debacle and the crisis that followed? The Instagram harassment problem? The armies of bots populating Twitter?

How can social media still be at the center of publishers’ digital strategies after such a terrible year?

We should have learned the lesson by now. Forecasts about the end of social networks have never proved right. Platforms are here to stay, with all their problems and visible imperfections. The people who own, manage, and shape them might go — but social media are not going away anytime soon. In the best possible scenario, they will evolve by bringing new challenges, problems, and imperfections. To step out of them cannot be an option unless we decide we want to leave millions of people behind, locked out of media outlets’ websites by the new rise of paywalls.

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg followed all too closely his company’s motto to “move fast and break things” as he announced that Facebook’s News Feed would show more content from friends and less from publishers. By changing the algorithm accordingly, Zuckerberg shattered the long-lasting illusion that Facebook could suffice as a growth strategy for mainstream media.

But the point is that Facebook cannot suffice to the media, because the media needs pluralism. A single platform will never be enough — not even if it has 2.7 billion monthly active users.

So at this stage, 2019 is the year when we should start to cope with social media problems and gain from the plurality of platforms by building communities and reinforcing trust. Next year, we’ll be there with a renovated approach and a different awareness. We’re already witnessing some examples.

Adam Smith, audience engagement editor at The Economist, created a Facebook group in April to promote conversations on the role of markets, technology, and democracy in preparation for The Economist Open Future Conference event. Imagine hundreds of people asked to share their opinions on topics such as gender equality, populism, climate change, and so on. Sounds like the perfect storm. On the contrary, Open Future is a positive environment, thanks to simple rules and careful moderation. Neither clickthrough rate nor post reach is fundamental — people’s ideas are, and this helped to create a proactive and engaged community that keeps discussing even today, months after the end of the Open Future Conference.

Another interesting experiment is the ExposedABC group. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation created it to build a community of amateur detectives, able to dive deeper into the Australian cold case of Keli Lane. A lot of room for conspiracy theories, misinformation and some hate speech? Au contraire! ABC News’ Caro Meldrum-Hanna has used the Facebook group, which counts more than 30,000 members, to debunk and challenge some of the myths that have cropped up around the story.

Last April, The Telegraph launched Refresh, a Facebook group to discuss new ideas around free-market policies. The goal is to engage with a younger audience in order to produce a series of articles and comments “by young people, for young people.” Daniel Capurro and Helena Horton, the journalists who moderate the group, post contributions to trigger conversations and make members of the group write their own articles which are eventually published on The Telegraph website. This same year, The Telegraph also appointed Robin Hough head of communities to lead a new team of journalists dedicated to community engagement projects. The team focuses in particular on comments, Q&As, and Facebook groups (the last two groups they launched are Telegraph Family and Telegraph Motoring Club).

It’s not all about Facebook, though.

While Snapchat was stepping through its worst year so far, PinkNews found fertile ground to thrive on Discover. In just three months’ time, they reached 35 million people under 25 — yes, Generation Z — and, more importantly, they’ve started experimenting with new formats and content that helped them build a relationship with a generation of readers that has been hard to engage with for the vast majority of publishers. Even if it doesn’t work on Snapchat in the long run, the tests they are running today will become good material to build new strategies for the future.

Gen Zers are at the center of another exciting project led by Hannah Ray, head of social strategy and storytelling at Vogue International. This time, the platform is Instagram, where @vogue hosts contributions by emerging artists, designers and performers to engage with its younger audience. By publishing their videos, images, and words, the account features their first-person narratives and focuses on stories and topics that @vogue’s community cares about.

On Twitter, BBC showed recently how a simple feature like a thread can enable new kinds of storytelling. BBC Africa Eye’s open-source investigation “Anatomy of a Killing,” which was first published as a 10-minute video online, has been unpacked on Twitter in a 34-tweets-long chain that performed incredibly well concerning engagement.

I won’t lie to you — these experiments alone aren’t going to salvage journalism. But they are good examples of yet-to-disclose potentialities of social networks. The challenge is out there, waiting for someone to engage with it.

Francesco Zaffarano is a social media journalist and former engagement editor at La Repubblica.

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