The current uprising in Egypt has prompted a lot of talk about the role of social media in political protest. The most sensible comments have been to the effect that, no, it's not an enabler, but yes, it can be an accelerant.
What about the relationship between 'social' and 'mainstream' media? Here are my thoughts. Take them to bits and see if they work.
At its best, social media provides a microscope. It plays the same role foreign correspondents traditionally play, giving a close-up view of what's happening. Social media provides many correspondents and allows for the capture and rapid sharing of lots of detail.
At its best, mainstream media provides a megaphone. It takes the important stories and gives them scale.
At their best, together, the microscope feeds the megaphone. Take Egypt. Without the microscope, today's news headline would be Rival factions battle in the streets of Cairo. The microscope shows that the pro-Mubarak faction is a rent-a-mob of thugs and cronies. As a result, the megaphone tells a better story. Or should, at least.
Between the two there has to be a filter. The microscope is notoriously bad when it pretends to be a megaphone. Easy me-too functions like retweeting are great for spreading news, but also great for giving isolated observations an undue sense of scale (which is, after all, what microscopes are for). The megaphone is just as bad as a microscope, given the pressures of time and money which hinder true investigative journalism.
The filter is the journalist - at least, what journalists may be becoming. Not the sole unearther of facts and pursuer of leads, but the skillful observer of everything the microscope reveals; the maker of connections; the person who finds the story, and knows how to set it up for the megaphone. If professional news has a future it may be through this analytical function. Rehashing press releases is, after all, little more than retweeting.
# Alex Steer (02/02/2011)