Social media’s future uses are being decided now

Every day at the University of Michigan and other research institutions, researchers are examining the ways that technology has changed our interpersonal relationships. The research can have major implications for the way journalists interact with readers, interact with each other, and provide insight into sourcing their stories.

A major field of research in the last several decades is social capital. The ways that people interact with each other have drastically changed since the mid-20th century. Suburbs, changing social structures, and individualized leisure time brought people away from the neighborhood and leisure based socializing that was formerly common.

Social media and other forms of online communication, however, have brought people together in ways similar to “the good old days.” There are Facebook groups for CrossFitters, Yoga practitioners, dog-walkers, and any other interest group imaginable. Social media has allowed people to reconnect after long periods of absence and across geographic boundaries in ways that were not feasible with letters and long-distance phone calls.

The new social landscape does not look identical to the old, but both allow people to be socially connected.

Professor Nicole Ellison teaches and researches at the University of Michigan School of Information. Her main focus is the social impact of information and information technologies. I got to sit down with Professor Ellison to talk about her research on social capital and Facebook, and potential implications for journalists.


After interviewing Professor Ellison, I was interested in looking at the social networks of reporters on Twitter.  Specifically, I was interested in seeing how (or if) the number of Tweet a reporter sends in a week is related to how many followers they have and therefore access to social capital. What I found was pretty surprising. Based on an (admittedly small) sample of forty-five New York Times national reporters, there is very little correlation. Though the number of followers ranged from 1,075 to 75,000, the vast majority of the reporters tweeted 100 times or fewer per week with most clustered under ten. I only looked at reporters, not editors or photographers.

I first compared the raw data, then compared everyone who had fewer than 10,000 followers since they were the majority. I thought since the people who had 30,000 or 75,000 followers were pushing the data into a large chunk, deleting them may give a clearer picture.


In fact, the scatter plot looks quite similar. There seems to be very little correlation between number of followers and frequency of Tweets. This then begs the question, what is the purpose of reporters Tweeting? In other words, if frequency of Tweets doesn’t garner additional social capital to be converted into resources for reporting, what is the purpose of tweeting?

This question of utilizing social media and the social capital that comes with it, is an important question for journalists looking toward the future. Twitter can be simply a marketing tool, as many have chosen to use it, or it can be a way for journalists to utilize the social capital available to them.

There are some journalists who are testing the waters of utilizing their social network for reporting. Jason DeRusha, a news anchor and food critic, can often be seen using his Twitter to crowdsource recommendations. His 32,000 followers engage with him frequently, answering his questions and conversing on Twitter. His Twitter feed displays some of the concepts that Professor Ellison discussed: he utilizes his large social network in a way that is reciprocal. Followers reply and he converses with them. He also utilizes them as sources.

There are also examples of reporters utilizing sources or citizen journalists inside conflict areas. This was evident during the Arab Spring, in 2011. Journalists were able to connect with citizens on the ground and share the content they produced. [Caution, video contains violence and may be too graphic for some viewers]

The “Blue Bra Girl” video was widely circulated on social media and was used as a first-person account by several news organizations.

Since social media permeates throughout life, it is sometimes hard to remember that the medium is still in its early days. The ways that reporters choose to use social media, as marketing or as collecting social capital, are setting the course for the future. Research like Professor Ellison and her colleagues can help gain insight into ways that reporters are already using social media, but also ways that social media can help to improve reporting in the future. Whether reporters can harness the social capital they have access to may play a role in determining how social media is used by reporters in the future.


5 Things You Should Know About Ellen Pao

  1. She recently sued her former employer Kleiner Perkins over claims of gender discrimination in a very public, high profile case. She said the workplace had a workplace culture centered on boys club in-jokes, relegating women to the back of the room, and passing over qualified women for promotions.
  2. Though she lost, her lawsuit opened a dialogue about the implicit and insidious sexism faced by women all industries, but especially tech given her recent appointment to CEO of Reddit.
  3. She has learned from her own experiences and is implementing new policies at Reddit, including no longer negotiating salaries. Studies show that men are often more willing to negotiate salaries and women are often penalized when they negotiate. ABC News quoted her saying “We aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation.”

    Courtesy of Business Insider

    Courtesy of Business Insider

  4. A group of women in Silicon Valley paid for a full page advertisement in the Palo Alto Daily Post thanking Pao for her lawsuit. This is significant not only because it shows how many women are affected, but because the Post is a free paper distributed across Silicon Valley ensuring high visibility.
  5. Reddit is not known for its love of women, people of color, or LGBT people. It has problems with trolling, doxxing, and revenge porn. How will Pao maintain Reddit’s “content atheism” while bringing it to the standard to which she holds other companies?

Marissa Mayer: Google-search visionary turned Yahoo CEO

Today, Marissa Mayer is well-known as the CEO of Yahoo, but fewer people know the role she played in developing Google, and by extension the internet, as we know it.

In 1999, she was Google employee 20 fresh out of Stanford. During her tenure at Google, she had a hand in many of the major Google

Courtesy of CNET

Courtesy of CNET

products including Gmail, the search homepages, and Google maps. She worked as a Product Manager, utilizing her background in artificial intelligence and design. She also holds several patents through her work at Google.

While many CEOs are business professionals first and foremost, Mayer is a software engineer who runs a (multi-billion dollar) business.

Mayer joined Yahoo in 2012, bringing with her the product expertise from Google but also some of Google’s unique traits. She instituted “FYI” sessions where top management answers difficult questions from any full-time employee, and is credited with increasing transparency. She also brought new products under the Yahoo brand, such as social media and blogging platform Tumblr. She also became one of the only women to be in a CEO role and in the midst of a pregnancy.

She has also faced controversy at Yahoo, with some employees taking issue with her eliminating telecommuting while having her son in a nursery right next to her office. There have been questions about certain business decisions, like buying Tumblr before it was shown to have revenue.

However, her first year saw Yahoo’s stock almost double, and the stock has continued to grow. In early 2015, the stock saw a dip in prices, but still remains higher than prior to Mayer’s tenure.

Courtesy of Google Search

Courtesy of Google Search

Yahoo! News Digest Courtesy of Apple App Store

So far in her tenure, Mayer has made significant changes at Yahoo, both internally and externally. In addition to changes mentioned above, she also revamped the popular photo service Flickr, and debuted several apps that won Apple design awards. Yahoo has expanded its news presence, bringing in Katie Couric and other traditional journalists. Last year, Couric had an exclusive interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg following the Hobby Lobby decision.

Mayer has been at the helm of many cutting edge innovations first at Google, and now through her changes at Yahoo. Though there were many people responsible for Google’s success, she played a key role in creating many of the flagship products that have shaped the internet and the world. It will be fascinating to see how she shapes the internet next.

Wearable Tech and Women

Wearable tech is definitely having a moment right now. It’s a bit of a vague term, used to describe both things like the JawboneUP, a thin piece of plastic that tracks activity, to the Apple Watch, which tracks activity and also is an extension of your phone and computer. Even your phone can be wearable tech, with Apple’s HealthKit app and numerous others that track your activity, sleep, or food intake. No one really knows how popular these pieces of technology will remain, but they are certainly generating a lot of buzz.

Wearable tech does have some glaring problems, especially for women (and some men). In the top 20 apps on the iPhone app store, four of them are either menstrual cycle trackers or fertility trackers.

Yet, none of the wearable tech mentioned offers native menstrual or fertility trackers. In fact, women have been calling for native menstrual trackers ever since the HealthKit came out, and there has yet to be one introduced. There are ways to use third-party apps that feed information into devices like Jawbone or apps like HealthKit, but this is an imperfect solution.

Tech companies love to wax poetic about how important female consumers and employees are to them, yet these products show quite clearly the opposite. The fact that tech companies are not including such a vital part of health for millions of people brings up many questions. Did they not think of menstruation as a vital part of health because there were no women in the room to bring it up? Did the women who were in the room feel uncomfortable bringing it up because of an industry that discriminates against them? Or did someone bring it up and they decided women’s needs were not that important?

In some ways, wearable tech is a distillation of the tech industry’s continuing problem with women. Somewhere in the creation of these products, someone chose not to include menstrual tracking, despite its vitality to the health of millions of people. Someone, somewhere decided that women’s needs were not as important, that men’s bodies were normative and women’s non-normative.

An Evening with Girl Develop It

Girl Develop It is a national organization aimed at teaching and supporting women in technical industries. The local Ann Arbor chapter has events ranging from Tech 101, explaining jargon, to Intro to Responsive Design, for people already working with HTML/CSS. Local tech companies typically host events, and sponsors are often companies hoping to hire women in their technical departments. Ronda Bergman and Julie Cameron, a .Net developer and front-end web developer respectively, run the Ann Arbor chapter.

I was able to sit in on a recent Intro to Responsive Design class taught by one of GDI Detroit’s founders Nicole Rodriguez. The class was pretty full, with a diverse group of tech ladies. Unlike some of the more basic courses, these women were already familiar with fundamentals of web design and were looking to exand their knowledge into responsive web design. Responsive web sites are sites that adjust to the size of the device, ranging from a tiny cell-phone screen to a massive computer monitor.

Atomic Object, the host of the workshop.

Atomic Object, the host of the workshop.

Students preparing to start the workshop.

Students preparing to start the workshop.

Julie Cameron introduces the course and the instructor, Nicole Rodriguez.

Julie Cameron introduces the course and the instructor, Nicole Rodriguez.

A student takes notes on Rodriguez's instruction.

A student takes notes on Rodriguez’s instruction.

Improvising after projector problems.

Improvising after projector problems.

TA Elizabeth helps a student with an exercise. She is a front-end developer who has been involved in GDI since 2013.

TA Elizabeth helps a student with an exercise. She is a front-end developer who has been involved in GDI since 2013.

Satirical News vs. Network News

Since I watched NBC Nightly News, whose anchor is currently on leave for embellishment, it seemed appropriate to follow it with Jon Stewart’s recent segment about reporters and politicians embellishing.

The tone difference between the two is striking. While the network news is serious in tone, satirical news is very irreverent. One surprising similarity was the element of sensationalizing. As I said Tuesday, NBC opened their news trying to scare everyone in America that their malls were going to be attacked. Jon Stewart did not go as far, but he did spend a lot of time on a story about Bill O’Reilly lying. This seemed sensationalized because in the context of Fox News, I would think viewers would have come to expect some embellishment and exaggeration by now so spending five minutes talking about it seemed like pandering to his Fox News hating viewers.

Another interesting aspect of the Stewart Segment was the expectation of the viewer. While NBC assumed a low knowledge of the news — it expected viewers to know what ISIS is but not Al-Shabaab — Stewart assumes viewers are watching his show in addition to traditional news. He throws out names and references at breakneck speed, the only way to understand the show is if you already have background knowledge.

I find satirical news interesting because they tend to cover stories that the mainstream media does a poor job on. For example, Colbert’s in-depth reporting on Super PACs blew mainstream reporters out of the water. I think watching satirical news, in addition to studying communications, also causes me to turn a more critical eye toward mainstream news. I do trust satirical news more than mainstream news because they are willing to dissect and analyze in ways that mainstream news does not, as Stewart shows in the end of his clip, where he calls mainstream media out for focusing on reporters falsifying war hero status while their inattentiveness to politicians lying about wars arguably got us into the last two.

NBC Nightly News

This assignment was a bit of a challenge for me. Other than visiting my grandparents, I never watch the evening news. I couldn’t even tell you who the anchors are (other than the recent Brian Williams scandal). I decided to watch a broadcast of the NBC Nightly News from February 22. Carl Quintanilla substituted for Lester Holt.

The news opened on a very sensationalized note. Before even saying “good evening,” Quintanilla said “If you go to the mall in this country, you’re at the center of a new terror plot,” followed by shots of families and young children in malls. This line is followed up by the DC correspondent saying the FBI and Homeland Security does not believe the threat is credible, but it was kind of late to walk back on the sensationalized nature then.

The story was followed up by a story of teenage girls who ran away to join ISIS, followed by a preview for the TODAY show featuring Kara Mueller’s parents. The remainder of the show was devoted to southern states dealing with snow, peanut allergy, and the Oscars.

The best story of the night, in my opinion, was the story about Tennessee’s snow troubles. There was a lot of information about why this state in particular is struggling: downed power lines in rural areas, fog preventing emergency crews from getting through, power grids running on generators. It focused on the facts and the effect the snow was having.

The first three stories, however, were really painful. There was so much sensationalization and scare-mongering and very little in the way of facts or context. The third story was barely even a story at all, it was really just an advertisement for a story on another NBC news program.

To be completely fair, this was a Sunday night broadcast and there is typically not too much political news that happens on the weekends. However, it was still pretty disappointing to see how little substance there was to many of these stories. The lack of political or domestic stories could have given the newscast time to explore Al-Shabaab or radicalization of young people more in depth. Instead, they opted for surface level stories focused on scaring Americans about a plot that the FBI and Homeland Security have refuted.

After watching this broadcast, it’s hard to see where the Nightly News will fit in as digital natives age and begin to make up a larger proportion of the population. The Nightly News is posted to the website the day after it airs – making it out of date by the time I see it. I could find stories from other news outlets that reported more in-depth, like this report from CNN. It discusses the authenticity of the threat, which malls specifically are targeted, the international nature of the threat, and precautions being taken.

If the news had been less sensationalized and reported more in-depth, I might have said that the nightly news could continue to be relevant as the digital age marches on. However, having watched it, I don’t see how it can maintain relevance in a time with phone news alerts, Twitter, and intense competition from other news outlets. Its reporting just didn’t stack up.