Social networking and the news habit

At my university, we are playing host to 17 journalism educators from 17 countries, most of which are “developing” rather than “developed.” We have arranged six weeks of lectures, workshops and travel for them with the goal of increasing their understanding of how we practice and teach journalism in the U.S.

Of course they all use the Internet, Google and e-mail (they teach at universities in their home countries). They have all seen YouTube before. But yesterday we learned that very few of our participants are familiar with Facebook, MySpace or Second Life. We have also learned that in some countries, LiveJournal or MSN Spaces (now renamed Live Spaces) are far more popular than they seem to be here. (Last year two of our students from China told me that MSN Spaces is by far the most popular social networking site in China, and Baidu far outstrips Google in search engine usage.)

Who Participates (Business Week, June 11, 2007)
So while this was fresh in my mind, I saw this excellent information graphic (via the MultimediaShooter blog).

It’s a pleasure to stare at this graphic — the data are so clearly depicted, and the information is fascinating. (It represents U.S. users only.)

What you see in the graphic might not surprise you — Americans ages 18 to 21 use social networking sites more than any other age group — but think about what this might mean for the future. We don’t know whether this group will continue to use these sites — or similar sites that emerge later — to the same extent, or in the same ways. But use of such sites is spreading around the world. In countries where access to the Internet is low, and/or literacy rates are low, we won’t see the same patterns emerging. At least not yet.

We do know that mobile phone use is higher than Internet use in many countries, however, and it’s clear that Internet-capable phones are getting better — and cheaper. People in developing countries already create ad hoc networks for text messaging, through which they disseminate news and gossip that often is censored from the news media. This cool chart would be different in other countries.

The Digital Youth research project offers a lot of interesting stories coming out of ethnographic research under way in California. Researchers are studying how kids play, learn and socialize “in virtual places and networks such as online games, blogs, messaging, and online interest groups.”

What I’m pondering is the implications for civil society — modern democracies — social networks in real life, which keep us from devolving into chaos.

As Steve Yelvington has said more than once:

Media consumption patterns are set early in life, and tend to persist. The change that endangers the newspaper business model is not one that involves readers losing the habit. It is, instead, a generational change that involves losing the actual readers from the population pool.

In other words, these 20-year-olds who do not read a printed newspaper are never going to become newspaper readers.

Most of the news industry in the Western countries has recognized this already. We see different patterns in some other countries, such as India, but I think the trend of the Internet — especially via mobile phones — will continue indefinitely.

What I’m thinking about today (and I do apologize for taking so long to get to my point) is that the habit young people in the U.S. do have — now, at that crucial age when patterns are set for life — is the pattern of interacting in social networks.

Their interpersonal networks might well reconfigure over time. The software or sites they use might well change or be replaced by others. But their habit of staying connected digitally, checking for updates, making plans, sharing gossip, getting information — this will likely remain their habit, their means of keeping in touch with the world around them, for the rest of their lives.

That’s why we need to understand these spaces where young people interact. I don’t know if it really requires setting up a bureau in Second Life, but it certainly does demand our attention — immediately, today.

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5 Comments on “Social networking and the news habit

  1. There is an interesting study out from the World Association of Newspapers on youth media behavior. Newspapers must watch out for online competition from social networks like MySpace and Facebook. The study found this phenomenon is on the rise and that participants in the study listed “discussion with friends” as their top source for news and information—higher than television and print news. The authors of the study say that the best strategy is for news organizations to insert themselves into these new social networks through the use of news aggregators. Unfortunately, the problem this creates according to the authors of the study is that those using social networks don’t realize they’re getting their news from online newspapers. Thus content branding is lost. When creating multimedia content for future use such as a social network site we may need to think about how we are branding our content to identify where it comes from.

  2. Thanks for the tip, David! That study is here. The link goes to a summary, and on that page you’ll find the full report linked as a PDF file. Sweet.

    I wonder if branding is going to change for media and news organizations in the future. Certain news brands carry high credibility today, but only among certain groups. (For example, Fox News.)

  3. I love Livejournal.com and so do more than 13 million other folks. Here are some more stats:

    Gender of LJ users:
    * Male: 1785930 (32.9%)
    * Female: 3649230 (67.1%)
    * Unspecified: 2121420

    Demographics:
    * United States – 3385364
    * Russian Federation – 480615
    * Canada – 288137
    * United Kingdom – 250584
    * Australia – 118763

    Most Popular in These States:
    * California – 557520
    * Florida – 355969
    * New York – 336103
    * Michigan – 278833
    * Texas – 251237

  4. Newspapers wouldn’t be in the mess they are if they had stuck to basics. I was in the belly of the beast for 40 years and went from typewriter to computer.
    Talk radio was the first crack in the wall. It allowed the media disenfranchised to vent. Soon there will be no reporters, just content providers. Looks like form has finally overtaken function.Would anyone really have cared 40 years ago what the talk was in the back print shop? Jim Clifford

  5. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » “Micro media” and our mobile future

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