What social networking sites can teach the news

As the mainstream media accuses social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace of recklessly disclosing their users’ private information and creating a haven for cyber-bullying and risky behavior, researchers are speculating on how news sites can adopt social networking sites’ more positive characteristics.

Sebastian Valenzuela and Jacqueline Vickery of the University of Texas at Austin and Cindy Royal, an assistant professor at Texas State University, discussed these popular sites in Saturday’s Social Networking and User-Generated Content panel at the ninth annual International Symposium on Online Journalism on the University of Texas at Austin campus.

Valenzuela, who produced “Lessons from Facebook: The Effect of Social Network Sites on College Students’ Social Capital” with Namsu Park and Kerk Kee, looked at the intensity of Facebook use among Texas college students.

Though Valenzuela’s paper was not written for journalists, he said they can certainly learn from it.

“I think news organizations should ask themselves, “Why should people switch from their traditional social networking sites and switch to a USA Today social network site?” he said.

Valenzuela warned that there’s more work involved for news sites than simply creating a networking environment.

“Social networking sites are useful structures for connecting people, sharing information and for collective action, but not for exchanging points of view,” he said.

Eighty percent of Texas university students sampled for his study had moderate or high levels of use on Facebook, but only 10 percent were actually active in posting on walls and message boards for Facebook groups.

“In the political realm, most of the associations go through Facebook groups,” Valenzuela said, citing groups such as “Texans for Obama.” However, for civic participation in volunteer or charity work, users usually send their friends personal messages or leave wall posts, where users can leave public messages directly on a friend’s Facebook page.

Royal stressed the relevance of blogging, creating surveys or polls and engaging with varied forms of multimedia in creating a more social-oriented news site.

Citing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s speech at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, Royal said social networking will one day be a tool for journalists to get news from their sites to younger readers.

“There will be one I.D. where you can go across the web and take your friends and community with you,” she explained.

In order to do this, news organizations will have to realize the model that young people use to get news.

“Facebook calls it News Feed for a reason—that is news to them,” Royal said.

“They’re more involved in engaging with the entire web rather than deeply engaging in the platform of Facebook by itself,” Royal said.

Vickery discussed citizen journalism and the questions of credibility that can accompany online interactions, using the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier caused by a MySpace hoax as a case study.

Neighbors of the Meier family posed as an invented teenage boy who Meier developed a relationship with via MySpace in order to find information regarding their own daughter. The suicide formed an Internet mob within the community, but stimulated dialogue and debate, unlike news sites that were filled with messages of condolence. While news sites had generated hundreds of user comments, blogs had produced thousands.

Though Vickery said it would be foolish to blame MySpace for the death of Meier, she said it would be equally foolish to assume Meier had it coming.

“I’m arguing that Internet education and discourse needs to move beyond notions of childhood,” Vickery said, “and recognize that adults and children alike also need lessons in Internet safety which starts in mechanisms of Internet credibility.”

One thing’s for sure—the research on the Internet is growing and notions of how to best utilize this technology is changing as fast as its capacities for online journalism.

“What we found new is perhaps already old,” Valenzuela said. “Perhaps next year we’ll have a different story.”

ISOJ 2008: Social Networking and User-Generated Content, from Knight Center on Vimeo.