The vast virtual web spun among Internet users via social networks facilitates the circulation and sharing of information among individuals. Thanks to these national and international networks, information spreads from one family to another, from one company to another and from one nation to another. It travels in an unlimited and instantaneous manner, without being restricted by boundaries, time zones or financial cost. Therefore information becomes immediate and accessible regardless of physical or cultural barriers, as illustrated by the global retransmission of images of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. While social networks have become a lever in the distribution and sharing of information, can they be considered as a fully-fledged news medium?
The information that circulates on social networks differs from that proposed on traditional media by its variety: Internet users are just as likely to discuss personal and intimate subjects as they are to share opinions about social and sporting events or react to economic and political news. On social networks, the type of information is not restricted to a certain domain as it is in traditional media where characterisation and segmentation have become the structuring principles of the format.
The Facebook network, which counts almost 200 million users around the world, is a clear illustration of the universal information-sharing possibilities offered by social networks. The users who have created a profile on this network use it to exchange personal information, photos and videos, but they also use it to talk about news events that have caught their attention.
This huge variety of information available, without segmentation, is contributing to the disappearance of boundaries between the categories of information exchanged. The hierarchy between personal and professional information and general news is disappearing, giving rise to a juxtaposition even confusion of ideas. This phenomenon is further amplified by the fact that the contributors to social networks are not subject to the same degree of seriousness and reliability of sources as journalists. While news is easily and freely accessible on the social networks, as opposed to on traditional media where it is limited and at a cost, it remains uncertain and very difficult to verify.
Some journalists have questioned the pertinence of the information available on social networks. An experiment conducted in February 2010 by five journalists isolated in a farm in the Périgord region of France and cut off from any means of communication except Twitter and Facebook, showed the efficiency of social networks as a news medium. Major news events do indeed circulate on these networks, while false rumours are easily identifiable by applying the law of large numbers, with accurate information being most widely discussed. Nevertheless, journalists continue to have mixed feelings about the reliability of the information since a lack of context makes it hard to identify any sort of hierarchy in the information. As a result the journalists were misled by minor events that provoked a disproportionate amount of discussion. Finally, they observed that significant societal events received relatively little attention compared to controversial subjects and political rumours that created a buzz.
A new ‘social experience’ surrounding information
The information spread via social networks differs from that of traditional media by its personalised, participatory and shared nature. It is personalised because people use their preferred networks to filter the information that they want to receive, to rate it or to react to a topic that interests them. It is participatory because a third of users have already contributed, commented upon or spread news. And it is shared because the majority of people use social networks as a source of news . These networks participate actively in opening up the society of opinion by allowing everyone to comment on news instantaneously, to express themselves and to give an opinion about a subject. As a result the Internet users become real players in participatory news.
…but with a limited shelf life
Social networks transform the Internet user’s relationship with information. The evaluation criteria are changing: it is no longer universal and the property of journalists alone but shared and participatory. From now on, it must be dynamic, renewed and sensational! Moreover, the buzz phenomenon, which has been amplified and multiplied by the rise of social networks, generates traffic around this news and thereby increases its shelf life.
The difficulty now lies in the real time management of the information, both on traditional media and on new supports. The instantaneousness of news on the social networks demands great reactivity on the part of those passing on the messages (journalists, companies, users of social networks, etc.).
A new status for news
Social networks versus traditional media
This analysis highlights the growing importance of social networks in the media world: their profusion and power of transmission make them an influential and efficient communication tool. They are increasingly seen as a new ‘journalistic’ information medium, which is taking its place alongside traditional media. The news spread via social networks is regularly picked up by the press or television. As a result, the scandal concerning Zahia D, ‘the 24th player in the French national football team’, which was a hot topic on the social networks for several weeks in May of last year, was picked up and echoed in the newspapers.
A new communication tool for opinion leaders
Opinion leaders are also permeating the social networks and using them to transmit information. Eric Mettout, chief editor of the French magazine l’Express, uses his Twitter account to discuss news topics with his peers, to reveal behind-the-scenes editorial anecdotes and to air his opinions about the changes taking place in his profession. Similarly, Xavier Ternissien, a respected media specialist who writes for the French newspaper Le Monde, ‘tweets’ news and interacts with his ‘followers’ every day.
This observation should be moderated by the ‘youth’ aspect of the phenomenon: the majority of journalists using social networks belong to the ‘younger generation’, while older professionals remain sceptical about the reliability and efficiency of social networks. The latter consider that the journalistic profession is about passing on the information that they have rather than debating upon it with novices.
Social networks are also catching the eye of political leaders who see them as a real tool for extending their sphere of influence. They have become a vector of informal and image-enhancing communication. Consequently the French President Nicolas Sarkozy has an open profile on Facebook which paints a determinedly modern and friendly picture of him. It is seen as a way of communicating about Nicholas Sarkozy’s ambitions and projects and of revealing more personal information, such as his favourite book, The Red and the Black by Stendhal or his regular hobby of jogging.
The necessary ‘editorialisation’ of information
No longer loyal to a single media, Internet users select the information that interests them and mix the sources. These days, the format used by the traditional media, who worked by the principle of a stable and loyal audience, is no longer adapted to the needs of versatile readers. This is a profound change in the way that the media function which needs to be taken onboard to attract readers and audiences.
The media are no longer the owners or guarantors of news which now exists independently. Being orphaned in this way, it becomes uncertain and contestable. In this context, a journalist’s signature becomes a new label for the content transmitted, with their reputation determining the quality of the information. As such, the historic credibility of the traditional media is gradually being overtaken by the influence of the journalists, who are increasingly independent and are becoming almost like brands, as can be seen in the proliferation of personal blogs written by journalists from big national newspapers, authorised and published by the editorial team on the newspaper’s own website.