Thursday, September 29, 2011

Random thoughts from social media conference

Spent a long but fruitful, and enjoyable, day at the second Social Media and Communication symposium at Rochester Institute of Technology, one full of catching up with old friends/colleagues and gathering some interesting take-aways on the state of communication and journalism.

The featured speaker was NYU professor Clay Shirky, author of the books Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus. His central message was how the interactive, collaborative tools afforded by the Internet today are fostering social change by enabling relevant communities to self-organize and apply collective intelligence to social problems. Such collaborations make use of what he called cognitive surplus -- time people have to work together productively in virtual arrangements -- in the book of the same name.

Two of his examples were related to collaborative problem-solving of a couple of very high-end, "out there" mathematical questions via the route of mathematicians sharing ideas about potential solutions via blog posts and comments. In one case, the series of posts and comments was reconfigured into a paper sent to an academic journal and accepted on the basis of its ideas. But the journal editors ran into a stumbling block with it because whomever submitted it didn't identify an author. Well, there was no one author (or even two or three), which presented a problem from the academic editor's frame of reference.

Shirky extended the example to say that it illustrates how print publishing, which for most of its history has facilitated and sped up the sharing of ideas, is now in many cases an impediment to it ... because of the cultural mindset embedded in print and its publishers.

One of the most interesting things he said (in my view at least) was that tools don't get socially interesting until they are technically boring, by which he seemed to mean when they became commonplace and mundane. This is the point he says we are at now with Internet collaborative tools but one we reached only recently. But only because we have reached that point can we use the tools for socially interesting results such as the math problem examples he gave. The most valuable outcomes of using the tools are the ones no one can anticipate or expect, he said a couple of different times.

Another interesting panel featured several journalists talking about what they are looking for in terms of relevant skills for working in modern newsrooms. Included were senior editors from Messenger-Post Newspapers, City Newspaper, The Minority Report (which serves the Rochester area African-American community), the Democrat and Chronicle and WXXI television. A special guest panelist was Tom Callinan, a former top editor of the D&C and other Gannett papers who recently retired from the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Callinan opened the panel by telling the audience, largely students, that a mindset oriented toward change was one of the most valuable assets they could bring to the job. But what was interesting was how quickly the conversation evolved into discussion of core journalistic values still being critical, including accuracy, inquisitiveness, solid ethics, strong writing skills, an understanding of news (as apart from opinion and infotainment), and passion for the work.

The importance of good writing -- meaning writing that is free of clutter, bias and errors of spelling, grammar and punctuation -- repeatedly came up. Yes, it's important to be able to work across platforms and tell stories in different ways that take advantage of the characteristics of modern multimedia tools, including social media. But what gives the work meaning and impact is adhering to all of the traditional characteristics of good solid journalism.

Other featured panelists at the event -- who offered opening and closing keynotes, respectively -- were Pam Moore of Zoom Factor and Maggie Fox of Social Media Group. Both of them focused on the impacts of social media on marketing, business and advertising.

But truly the best part of the day was the reunions with a number of old friends, mostly former work colleagues from the Democrat and Chronicle, some of whom are still working there and others (like Tom C.) who have moved along to other positions. Some of us managed to gather for a reunion photo. Networking is usually the best part of nearly any conference I attend, and this was no different.

Photo caption (L to R): Cynthia Benjamin, Jack Rosenberry, Patrick Flanigan, Bob Finnerty, Tom Callinan, Sebby Wilson Jacobson.

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