NYU Media Talk: Social Content, What’s Working? What’s Not? What’s Next?

Last night’s NYU Media Talk was informative, and one of the most entertaining talks I’ve attended. The topic was on social content, and how social media affects publishing. It was moderated by New York Times Media Equation columnist David Carr, chief strategist and editor-at-large for WaPoLabs Rob Malda, editorial director for Flipboard Josh Quittner, and editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed Ben Smith.

David Carr started the introductions with, “What the heck is a buzzfeed?”

Ben Smith explained that Buzzfeed is based on the premise that people get their news from the social web. Twitter is good for traditional beat reporting, he explained. And Facebook favors content with a real emotional core. Cat pictures, for example, turn out to be “extremely competitive.”

Rob Malda said that WaPoLabs was not directly connected to the Washington Post, and that they spend most of their time experimenting. One of their most successful projects is the social reader, a Facebook app that lets you read and share news with friends.

Josh Quittner said that Flipboard is a social magazine, meant to right the wrongs of browser-based content. He said that for newspapers and magazines, “the browser has made [publishing] not so compelling.” As a result, people scan the news for less than two minutes. Flipboard, however, wants to restore the glory and beauty of print. Quittner explained that people get their information from touch screens, and social networks are filters, with many people’s networks tuned to perfection to get the content they want.

“Most of what we read comes to us via other people,” he said.

Smith said that for Buzzfeed, Facebook is the biggest referrer, and has been since the second half of 2011. Before that, the biggest referrer was Google.

“I think it’s quaint that you’re talking about referrers,” Quittner said. More than half of time spent consuming information is via an app, Quittner said. It’s a fundamental shift. However, as more apps are moving to HTML5, he expects there will be a shift back from apps to websites.

Malda said he thinks content is being absorbed in smaller and smaller bits, in tighter channels. Both Facebook and Twitter’s newsfeeds are meant to be rapidly digestible.

He summed it up nicely. “Facebook and Twitter are about me,” he said. “Email is you.”

But Carr wondered what “liking” in Facebook meant. “Am I voting?”

People ‘like’ things to vote yes, Smith said.

“Is like losing its meaning?” Carr asked. “Do you worry that social will tell us only what we want to know?”

Because Facebook is a bigger network and Twitter makes things more transparent, Smith did not think this was a concern. In fact, he said, the “conversation is more mixed up than before.”

“Technology fixes it all!” Malda joked.

Still, some panelists felt that there will always need to be a baseline, such as The New York Times.

On Flipboard, Quittner said that there is no beginning, middle, or end arc, people just dive right in to the content. Some people take comfort in the structure of publications such as the New York Times, but it may also be enemy of information.

“The universe should be big enough to allow the 1400 words about something and the tweets about Snooki,” Malda said.

But social media can be exhausting. Carr said that he feels “you’re constantly pimping your own work,” and being a marketing brochure and a marketing agent for your work. As a result, you do less work. On the other hand, reporting has always been a social profession that required some schmoozing.

At this point it was time for the Q & A. One member of the audience asked about advertising online.

“I always thought that’s what the web got wrong,” Carr said. “Like, here’s the important thing and here’s the annoying dancing thing.”

Another audience member asked about media shifts and the role homepages play in finding content.

“Media shifts are generational and not total,” Smith said. With homepages, he added, people can get obsessed with filling them.

Malda said he doesn’t read any homepages. “I don’t know why anyone would.”

One of the last things the panel discussed was the value of curation. An audience member posed the question: is content creation or content curation more valuable?

“What’s better at water, hydrogen or oxygen?” Malda said.

Ultimately the panel agreed that good curation is valuable, and Flipboard is good at it.

Still, there will always be value placed on good storytelling.

“There’s always going to be a need for people with the art of telling stories,” Quittner said. “There are genetic storytellers–I believe that. That fundamental skill set will be prized and if you’re good at it, you’ll be paid for it.”

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