Sunday, March 15, 2009...11:34 pm

Connectivity, not content

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Or, why the web can sometimes seem so very meta
I noted recently that “people don’t care half as much about news as people in old media think they do. What they care about is entertainment and connectivity”. 
Though it’s the sort of thing that has old-style news journalists weeping and tearing their hair out (well, moaning into their pint, probably), I think it is true. Just look at the tremendous growth in social networking sites and technology, and what younger users are doing with it. (This is not an ageist pop at youth, by the way. Just sociological observation).
Although older users do come to rely on mobile technology, particularly for work, they don’t seem to let it really control their personal life. Younger users, who have not known a world without ubiquitous mobile connection, seem to rely on it completely. And not just for practical connectivity – it really seems to form part of their sense of self.
Just look at how they use it. Typical text conversations seem to consist of “U there?”; “I’m here”; “Is Ed here?” “Yeah, he’s here”; “Where are you?”; “I’m on the bus”; “Where are U?”; “In the park”; “Are U still there?” and so on (disclaimer: not an actual SMS conversation).
In principle, though, the interaction seems to be pretty empty. The important thing is the connection, not the content. It’s as if younger people have to live in a kind of cloud of connectivity, where it’s vital at all times to feel linked with the wider group. I get this impression often with my college journalism students, who will quickly flick to Facebook at any lull of more than 20 seconds in the class to check on what their friends are doing or saying. Which, more than likely, is flicking to Facebook to see what their friends are doing or saying.
In a related way, an awful lot of content on the web is, well, a bit self-referential. I’m blogging about stuff some of the time, but then quite a bit of the time I’m blogging about blogging itself. Given this blog’s role as a learning and teaching tool, it’s not so surprising. And I’m fine with that. But it’s interesting to note how common this is on the wider web too.
Take this personal technology article about Twitter  from the Wall Street Journal by Julia Angwin. Tellingly, she says:

After I wrote about Twitter last week, I went almost overnight from feeling like no one was listening to having 1,683 followers.

From this, she concludes that Twitter is not about broadcasting (the old media model), but conversation (the new media model).
She’s right, of course. But my conclusion is somewhat different. It’s that what people like Twittering about most is Twitter itself. Start a conversation about Twitter and Twitter users flock to it like bees to honey. 
The evidence is right here. Until recently, my top post in terms of page views was one about trying to put a Twitter feed on this blog (now happily working). To which my reaction was at first “huh?”. 
And, apart from Simon O’Hare’s response to my critique of his Leeds Guide article about the death of print, the first non-bot/spam comment I have had to a post was about my successful migration of Freelance Unbound to the Drupal CMS platform. Again – “huh?”. 
But actually it makes sense. People are not looking for news so much these days, because it is [a] boring and [b] so easy to find on, say, the BBC news site that no one really has to hunt it out.
Instead, they are looking for community (which is why the WSJ article about Twitter attracted Twitter users, eager to find validation), and practical information to help them actually do something. Often the something has to do with their web life, which is why the web can seem a bit like navel-gazing. Though often people seek advice for life in the real world too, which is kind of nice.
And of course they are looking for entertainment, which is why you’ll find lots of jokes and funny YouTube links sent to your inbox, rather than articles about the state of EU relations.
I realise I failed to include “advice” in my quote at the top of this post, so I will. The edited version is: 

People don’t care half as much about news as people in old media think they do. What they care about is entertainment, connectivity and advice.

So – if you really want to drive traffic, come up with entertaining content that offers advice about using Facebook. Your traffic will explode.


  • Hello:
    I’m an ex journo and I’ve watched newspapers struggle with the new communication channels as well.
    Can’t argue with your premise — people want community instead of “news”. But I think it’s not carried far enough.
    Newspapers used to be the centres of communities, the point of reference for everyone in a community, ie a town, or an industry.
    They were successful because they had the territory to themselves. When television became more popular and started to steal away advertising, however, newspapers tried to fight them, on their own turf – with hard news — or on a new turf — “investigative” pieces.
    They eventually reached a stand-off, but then along came Web 2.0, social networking, google, etc., and the process of destruction for both papers and television began.
    Until these “old media” find an area that is attractive and stop trying to supply the same thing as everybody else, that process will continue.

  • The masses – for want of a better phrase – have always been disconnected from bothering to digest news. That “new” technology has facilitated their connectivity, etc, is, I believe, a good thing. It is still up to a small minority to try to highlight important issues and make people care … That was as true in the days of print (and yes, I was a print journalist, albeit in the 1990s) and traditional broadcast as it is now in the web age. I much prefer what we have now to even 11 years ago.
    Most people want to go through life having decisions made for them. A sad but true fact. Those of us who care that bit more will always try a bit harder – and it IS possible to make the difference.
    Thanks for your excellent post – full of insight and thought.

  • freelanceunbound
    March 16th, 2009 at 10:14 am

    You’re absolutely right of course, though I would probably disagree about old media “finding an area that is attractive”. They simply won’t, because it is too late and there’s not enough money in it now to run the media as it used to be. I suspect that the community aspect of local media is now taken up entirely by social networking sites [gossip, personal news], while the small ad, transactional side is the territory of Craigslist etc. The one fly in the ointment for social media is it doesn’t make any money either. But while a big player like Google might buy up Facebook, it isn’t likely to acquire the Barnet Press…

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