Arianna Huffington and Social Media as a Platform, Not Content

Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the all-seeing, all-aggregating Huffington Post accused the media of having a social media “fetish” in an op-ed published last week.

In the piece, Huffington accuses the news media of being overly focused on social media as a story in and of itself, rather than as a means to commit acts of journalistic excellence.

“The media world’s fetishization of social media has reached idol-worshipping proportions,” writes Huffington. “Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage, but you rarely see one discussing what that coverage should actually be about.”

Her central argument is a call for for substance over style, content over platform.

Huffington thinks that journalists using social media are looking for the next great morsel that can fit in 140 characters or less, foregoing the important stories of our age to find the “mini-controversies” that work oh so so well on Twitter. She believes journalists are obsessed with the “right now” and the superficial, answering the “what” but failing to address the “why.”

“Our job in the media is to use all the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter – as well as the stories that entertain – and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story,” writes Huffington. “When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, or that downward mobility is trending upward, or that over 5 million people have been without a job for half a year or more, or that millions of homeowners are still underwater.”

“Someday, historians will likely look back at this virality-uber-alles age and wonder what we were trying to accomplish,” her indictment continues. “The answer will be: not a whole hell of a lot. Our times demand a much better response. All these new social tools can help us bear witness more powerfully or they can help us be distracted more obsessively.”

She’s almost right. Some journalists are certainly guilty of milking the social cow for everything her bladder’s worth – especially in the political sphere.

But sadly, Huffington fails to mention the work of excellent social journalists who understand that it’s a platform and not content in and of itself. These people, such as Andrew Katz (@katz, who made a name for himself with his brilliant Occupy Wall Street coverage), are using social media as it should be used: a tool for covering an essential story in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago.

My question to Huffington, then, is simple: Are you seeing the role social media are playing in the coverage of the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street, with their near-constant tweeting and livestreaming? Social media have provided an alternate lens through which the public can view and consume those events, away from the filter of the traditional news gatekeepers. Is that not worth at least a nod in your indictment of social journalism?

I’m glad to have a voice like Arianna Huffington on my side of the function-over-form debate. I just wish she gave a nod to social journalists doing excellent work rather than calling the whole lot of us into the media penalty box to think about what we’ve done (or haven’t done).

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About Alex Fitzpatrick

Alex Fitzpatrick is Homepage Editor for Time.com, also covering technology, policy and cybersecurity. He previously covered politics and policy for Mashable. Fitzpatrick has a degree in International Relations from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where he also served as News Director and Station Manager for the campus radio station, 89.3 WGSU. Follow Fitzpatrick on Twitter at @AlexJamesFitz or email him at alex.fitzpatrick@timeinc.com.
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