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Facing up to social media facts

Twitter isn’t the be all and end all for journalists in the social space. Australian reporters should also embrace the social network most of the country uses, argues The Advertiser’s GREG BARILA in The Bulletin.

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Think you know a bit about social media?

Ok, here’s an easy one. What social network am I? I was founded in the US in the 2000s. You can use me to do many things but some of my main features include:

  • Letting users follow other interesting people so they can get updates from them
  • Letting users promote other people’s content by sharing it on their own timelines
  • Letting users build lists to make it easy for them to follow topics they’re interested in
  • A blue tick system so that users can know when people and brand accounts are the real deal
  • Hashtag functionality so people can quickly find and join conversations around topics and events they want to follow.

Did you guess Twitter?

Oh dear. This is a bit awkward because actually I was talking about Facebook.

Over the past decade, in their quest for social media supremacy, Facebook and Twitter have hardly hesitated to borrow (shall we say blatantly copy?) various unique features from the other, so that in 2015, in many ways, it’s virtually impossible to tell them apart.

Facebook, by introducing trending topics, hashtags and by favouring news publishers more heavily in its ever-changing algorithm, has moved to emulate all the things that make Twitter such a powerful platform for breaking news.

In turn, Twitter has become more visual, allowing users to upload multiple images, animated gifs and more recently, video content via Vine, the new Twitter app and Periscope.

But for all the ways they have evolved to be like each other, Twitter, for most Australian journalists, remains the social media network of choice and the reflexive go-to place for #BREAKINGNEWS!!!!!!.

Public Facebook pages for individual journalists with anything approaching a decent following are few and far between, with some notable exceptions in broadcast and digital media.

These include Karl Stefanovic (140k, verified), Kochie (53k verified) Mark Beretta (10k, verified) Samantha Armytage (20k, no blue tick) Derryn Hinch (35k, no tick), Neil Mitchell (6k, no tick), Mia Freedman (65k, verified), Clementine Ford (18k, no tick) and Latika Bourke (5.6k, no tick).

Even journalists of the profile and calibre of Michelle Grattan, Tracey Spicer and Sally Sara have no more than a handful of followers (on unverified pages), while the likes of Leigh Sales, Chris Kenny, David Speers, Mark Colvin, Sandra Sully, Chris Uhlmann, Fran Kelly, Malcolm Farr, Ray Martin, David Marr, Barrie Cassidy, Hugh Riminton and Laurie Oakes, have no page at all.

Exactly the opposite is true in the US, where journalists like Brian Stelter (CNN), Matt Lauer (NBC), Barbara Walters (ABC) and Nicholas Kristof (The New York Times), to name just a few, are custodians of verified pages boasting literally hundreds of thousands of followers.

Kristof is particularly expert at managing a big Facebook community and regularly turns to his 600k-strong fan base to crowdsource topics and questions for his Times column and to debate and discuss serious issues, which, of course, is very much the point of being active on social.

None of which is to say Australian journalists and broadcasters don’t “get” the power and value of social media or don’t enjoy connecting directly with their fans and followers and debating news and current affairs. Clearly, we do.

Yet almost exclusively we do it on Twitter, a platform with only an estimated 2.8 million active users – many of them other journalists, broadcasters, entertainers, professionals and academics.

Folks like us. But while we’re busy trading our wry insights and witty one-liners on Twitter, the social network with true power to reach ordinary Australians – the stayat- home mum, the fish n’ chip shop owner, the executive chef, the homeless woman, the airline pilot – sits largely ignored by those of us with the power and means to drive and direct the conversation.

With a reported active monthly user base of 13 million Australians (let’s call it half the population) Facebook not only drives more traffic back to news brands and content producers, but, by its sheer size is the most representative social media community we have, imperfect though it may be.

The reticence of Australian journalists to use Facebook to break stories, follow news, cultivate contacts and engage with readers, listeners and viewers is curious, but I get it.

Managing trolls and finding the time to steer the conversation is a legitimate concern. And many journalists I speak to see Facebook as exclusively private and hesitate to use the platform in any kind of way that feels public, or extends access to people to whom they don’t know or are not related.

A lot of these privacy worries could be addressed just by setting up a public page and treating it with the same caution and care as a Twitter account.

And until more of us do, it’ll be impossible to say Australian journalists have fully grasped the power and potential of social media, as we are just talking to a fraction of the available audience, and to each other.

Greg Barila is the social media editor at The Advertiser in Adelaide. You can follow him on Twitter @GregBarila and on Facebook at facebook.com/GregBarila.

To read more from the May edition of The Bulletin, click here.

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