Our last post looked at Facebook’s announcement yesterday that it had reached 500 million users. A huge number but it should not be mistaken as proof that Facebook is now ubiquitous. However, Facebook’s growth is impressive both because of the size the social network and the way it has grown when alternative social networks have been less explosive.
Yesterday, I appeared on BBC News talking about exactly this issue. Amongst the many reasons why Facebook is a success (and I’m sure that an element of luck and good timing is, of course, in that mix), I explain why I think two things have made a real difference:
Having some really good products that have helped people and change the way they connect with people online. Most notably the photos product – by allowing an easy way for people to share photos and associate people with the photos they are in (through tags) they have created a powerful tool that many people use. In many ways Facebook is to photos what YouTube is to videos.
Making it really easy for people to set up their own groups. For individual users this means that their experience of Facebook is often made up of their connections and the groups of these that they are part of. It is a huge social network made up of lots of little groups. This second point is great for user created groups but adds to the reasons why Facebook is a difficult place to play for brands and is not always the answer to their social media strategy.
Below is the BBC News piece from yesterday that I am interviewed for, we’d love your thoughts on this and why you think that Facebook is such a success.
I’ve spent the last ten days with no Internet and very little access to English-language news sources. On my return I turned to my three favourite sources for getting up to speed quickly on what’s been happening: BBC News, Twitter and Google. The first of these for an overview of what had happened and the last two to really delve into some depth, to find out what people have been saying and to see what’s really been happening.
It turns out I missed a lot.
Only a few years ago, my main source of information on anything from the events in Iran, to the events in Los Angeles would have been a printed newspaper or magazine. I could have picked up one of the weeklies at Heathrow airport on Sunday and found out most of what there was for me to find out on the journey home. Today things are very different. There’s a vast array of information out there from news outlets to people like you and me. People who might (at least claim that they) know more than the new outlets, or at least are more willing to tell us.
Both the aftermath of the Iran election and the death of Michael Jackson have highlighted the role that users can play in generating news content. Keeping us up-to-date on what they are seeing, hearing and thinking. And often doing this more quickly than traditional news sources. The way we find out about what is happening is now quicker than ever before.
Speed of reporting is important for news and has been the focus of many important developments. The Crimean war in the 1850s saw the arrival of reporting that must have felt to readers of the day like ‘real-time’ updates. For the first time, electric telegraph enabled news to travel across Europe in hours and not weeks. People could find out what was happening at the Front. This was a real revolution. The increased speed at which we could get news and reporting changed what people wrote about and how they wrote about it – the birth of the ‘embedded’ journalist with the troops. This was the first time people could hear about battles and what was happening in the war whilst they were still pertinent. People felt they knew more and knew more quickly. They felt like they could change things.
And the use of user-generated news is bringing similar changes thanks to the speed at which it is letting people tell us what they are seeing and hearing. This is changing the kind of news we are exposed to. Whereas previously we would see reports that a journalist had crafted and would assess how much credit we gave to that particular journalist, source or publication. We are now getting snippets of information from multiple sources and each time have to assess what we think about that source and that piece of information. The many thousands of comments an news-snippets on Twitter about Iran or Michael Jackson need to be evaluated – which do we trust (and why); which are we interested in find out more about (and why); which snippets when put together give us a fuller picture of events (and why).
There is a danger with this kind of news. A danger that people will question less and that things that are not true or have less critical appraisal will start to influence what we think and what we do. I’m more optimistic. I think that the massive growth in real-time news will make us be more critical and help teach us to process this new kind of information – taking in more from a wider range of sources and filtering out what we don’t trust and query things by looking for other sources. This has to be a good thing.
And of course it means that we will get this information quicker than ever before. What this means for traditional news outlets is probably another story…
So if the ‘major event’ template employed by the BBC News website week is to be believed, November’s US election will be an Obama vs McCain affair. As something of a political junkie in the UK it’s great that we get so much coverage of events from the Primaries, but what I like even more is that so much conversation is going on online, that I can start to look at events as they are presented to and talked about by Americans.
The use of social media by the campaigns is impressive – Obama in particular has a website that makes it extremely easy for you to engage (if you want to) or just to find the information you want. If I want to register to vote, pledge money, agree to volunteer or to make calls I can do that from the homepage. I can also see his speeches (and take them with me by embedding them in my own sites) and read his policies. It’s a great example of building real engagement online and probably something that deserves a longer post than this about.
What I’m particularly enjoying is following the discussions in blog posts from the US. You can get a real feeling for what people think about and discuss, in a way that previously hasn’t been possible from abroad. Rather than following any one blog in particular, I’m enjoying dipping in and out of various people’s ramblings. And this week I was introduced to a great tool for finding these posts.
Trendpedia is a beta tool that searches blog posts and also lets you compare different search terms (and so it’s perfect for the Obama vs McCain debate). It may not be perfect and, in my experience, is better at picking up bigger brands and terms than more niche ones but it’s a useful little tool. Not least being able to compare discussions online over time…see the screenshot below.
It seems that major events were the impetus for most steps forward the BBC has taken in engagement. At yesterday’s Social Media Influence conference in London, Pete Clifton, Head of Editorial Development for Multi-Media Journalism at the BBC, spoke about the lessons they had learnt and the steps taken. And to me it seemed that major events were the catalyst for much of this change.
Event 1: The 1997 General Election Campaign
The BBC news website grew out of an experiment during the 1997 General Election in the UK – an important time and a major campaign which saw the Conservative Party being replaced by Tony Blair‘s New Labour after 18 years in power. The BBC put up a few pages to cover the event as an experiment of how news could work online. The plan was to take this down over the summer following the campaign, but a second event stopped this.
Event 2: The death of Diana, Princess of Wales
Just as the site was to be wound-down, a second event occured that would also merit from some special treatment online. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales in the summer of 1997 led the BBC news team to set up a second set of pages – updating these and letting viewers email in their tributes and opinions. The first interactive news article on the BBC’s site was born and the site was not taken down. The importance of news online was realised and so the full BBC news site launched later that year.
Event 3: 7/7 bombings in London
By 2005, the BBC News website was well used and formed an integral part of the channel’s news outlet. The events of 7th July of that year in London helped in the shift of perception from multi-media news being something that sat apart from main editorial activities to something more integrated. When news-wire and London Underground reports were still reporting a power surge on the tube network, and nobody really knew what was happening, BBC News received an email containing a picture of a bus where one of the bombs had exploded and an eye-witness account of the events. Interacting with viewers through multi-media and online was now making the news. In fact the opening sequence on the main TV news bulletin the following evening was entirely UGC – videos shot on mobile phones from inside trapped Underground carriages.
These major events seem to have shaped the BBC’s activities and strategy for news online. In fact it is now an integrated part of the news offering and will soon no longer be a separate team, but will sit with the rest of the newsroom.
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