Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

“Let’s not have this be yet another time where we look back in 20 years and realize we threw away our shot.”

Facebook faces its most serious legal assault yet, with the federal U.S. government and nearly all 50 states suing the company for monopolistic practices. But if a court someday forces Facebook to break up, that by itself won’t spark alternative online platforms for people to connect and interact.

Those new digital spaces will still need to be built, and journalism organizations are in an ideal position to rally people to them. Let’s not have this be yet another time where we look back in 20 years and realize we threw away our shot.

We’ve seen what happens when social platforms lack focus and suffer from inadequate moderation and vague policies. They become echo chambers or toxic spaces. At worst, they devolve into incubators for mis- and disinformation that can sway elections or incite violence.

We need a reset. As we start over, new online communities must have clear focus and strong moderation based on transparent policies. Journalists — trained to distill ideas to their essence, connected to experts and influencers, and steeped in ethical standards — are well suited to create and foster these new spaces.

This doesn’t mean every media organization should try to out-Facebook Facebook, aiming to build the next billion-person social platform. Journalists should find niches where they uniquely add value, and where their brands and expertise can rally people together. For a local newspaper, that could be around a major hometown industry or hot-button issue. For a larger media company, it’s still about finding the smaller niches where they have license through their brand or editorial talent to gather a meaningful community with a unique perspective.

The technology to create social networks isn’t the barrier. The innovation will come from the creative constraints that media companies place on new communities. What is the fundamental unit, the “post,” that people will create on these networks? How will they be organized and classified? How can strong editorial moderation amplify and reward the best contributions? What unique “superuser” features should journalists have? How can members be empowered, and potentially rise to leadership roles?

For too long, people have associated social networks with a few dominant platforms. But the Internet as a whole is a fundamentally social technology that enables real-time communication across the world. Let’s not just keep shouting at people in one-way formats and blaming others for the problems. It’s up to us to build these better places.

Burt Herman is a product director at Condé Nast and co-founder of Hacks/Hackers.

Facebook faces its most serious legal assault yet, with the federal U.S. government and nearly all 50 states suing the company for monopolistic practices. But if a court someday forces Facebook to break up, that by itself won’t spark alternative online platforms for people to connect and interact.

Those new digital spaces will still need to be built, and journalism organizations are in an ideal position to rally people to them. Let’s not have this be yet another time where we look back in 20 years and realize we threw away our shot.

We’ve seen what happens when social platforms lack focus and suffer from inadequate moderation and vague policies. They become echo chambers or toxic spaces. At worst, they devolve into incubators for mis- and disinformation that can sway elections or incite violence.

We need a reset. As we start over, new online communities must have clear focus and strong moderation based on transparent policies. Journalists — trained to distill ideas to their essence, connected to experts and influencers, and steeped in ethical standards — are well suited to create and foster these new spaces.

This doesn’t mean every media organization should try to out-Facebook Facebook, aiming to build the next billion-person social platform. Journalists should find niches where they uniquely add value, and where their brands and expertise can rally people together. For a local newspaper, that could be around a major hometown industry or hot-button issue. For a larger media company, it’s still about finding the smaller niches where they have license through their brand or editorial talent to gather a meaningful community with a unique perspective.

The technology to create social networks isn’t the barrier. The innovation will come from the creative constraints that media companies place on new communities. What is the fundamental unit, the “post,” that people will create on these networks? How will they be organized and classified? How can strong editorial moderation amplify and reward the best contributions? What unique “superuser” features should journalists have? How can members be empowered, and potentially rise to leadership roles?

For too long, people have associated social networks with a few dominant platforms. But the Internet as a whole is a fundamentally social technology that enables real-time communication across the world. Let’s not just keep shouting at people in one-way formats and blaming others for the problems. It’s up to us to build these better places.

Burt Herman is a product director at Condé Nast and co-founder of Hacks/Hackers.

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