Facebook’s introduction of Subscribe in September last year and its resulting transformation into an asymmetrical social network has presented a new opportunity for connection – but is it an opportunity that is passing many journalists by?
Social media use has exploded among journalists in recent years. What only a few years ago was considered by many in the industry at best a fad, and at worst a time-wasting distraction, has now become a valued part of the reporter’s toolkit.
And the evidence around me – in newsrooms, in conversations with colleagues and online – suggests that Twitter has become the tool of choice for most. Where once Twitter was an unknown quantity, now it is almost surprising to discover a journalist isn’t using the micro-blogging service.
But is this really the best approach for us to be taking?
Is Twitter the best place for journalists to engage their audience, to attempt to build an online community around their reporting? Especially since Facebook, and even start-up of the hour Pinterest, drive more web traffic than Twitter.
After all isn’t one of the aims of all this social networking – the very activity old-school editors feared would be such a drain on our precious time – to direct our online audience towards the content we are creating, which largely exists away from the social sites?
I understand why Twitter has emerged as the journalists’ soapbox. We looked at the options out there and decided to go with the one that didn’t involve opening up our entire online existence to the prying eyes of the world. And having seen newsdesks trawl the profiles of those who fell under the public gaze, who can blame us.
In our professional lives we wanted to follow and be followed without making the connection of ‘friendship’ that the previously symmetrical Facebook demanded of us.
The only way around this was to create a fan page and ask people to ‘like’ you. An awkward sell at a time when journalists as a profession, rightly or wrongly, are unlikely to win any popularity contests.
Now the advent of Subscribe has changed the basis of relationships on Facebook, and made the site more akin to Twitter and Google+ in the sense that being interested in the thoughts, feelings and actions of another user doesn’t demand reciprocation.
So why have journalists, particularly at local and regional level, been so slow to embrace professionally a site that accounts for one in every seven minutes spent online while throwing themselves wholeheartedly into Twitter?
The answer appears to be that many are simply unaware of the changes Facebook has made to its site and to the kinds of connection it allows users to make.
Last night I tweeted asking my followers for examples of local and regional journalists who are using Facebook Subscribe.
I didn’t receive a single positive response. But I did get replies from a number of reporters who were unaware that the rules of Facebook engagement had changed.
That’s not to say there aren’t individuals out there exploring the new potential for engagement and collaboration made possible by Facebook Subscribe. Benjamin Cohen is one reporter who has seen a highly-engaged community grow up around his use of the feature.
The Channel 4 News technology editor has seen his audience grow to the point where he has, at just over 40,000, around four times as many Facebook subscribers as Twitter followers. In a blog post published last month he explained why he values this new community he has built on Facebook.
“Before I allowed users to subscribe to me, viewers could become a ‘fan’ of me,” he wrote. “But only around 1,500 did and it was a pain to manage two identities. I also felt like a bit of a vain idiot asking people to ‘become my fan’, I’m hardly Kylie Minogue. But, with Facebook’s subscribe feature, you have to use your real world Facebook identity.
“I think Facebook Subscribe allows the audience to gain a new and frankly amazing level of interaction with the people making the news.
“It breaks down barriers and it allows collaboration – my most recent special report, on Pinterest, was as a result of me asking my Facebook subscribers what they’d like me to report on next.”
I think it’s time more journalists opened up their public posts to subscribers on Facebook. At present the interactions I have on Twitter are split 50/50 between those with people within the media industry and those outside.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many of my friends who don’t work in the media have yet to embrace Twitter, let alone relative newcomers like Google+ or Pinterest, so I want to ensure that my stories about the community we live in are accessible to them on the social network they use the most.
Currently around one in five interactions on my Facebook profile – comments, likes and shares – are from ‘non-friends’. I would love to see a greater balance emerge in the coming months.
Facebook has around 845 million monthly active users. Why would anyone producing content they want the world to see not want a piece of that?