Phillip Smith

Why We Share & Why It Matters

Does social media help us, or hinder us, from understanding the world?

The tree of Krakow was the Twitter of its day” — Alfred Hermida, Author of Tell Everyone

I finally managed to see the inside of Vancouver’s start-up darling, Hootsuite, last night by crashing a panel exploring social media and verification (sadly, I wasn’t able to find my way to the infamous beer fridge or foosball table!). Panel format aside, last night’s #TellEveryone: Why We Share and Why It Matters event was a thought-provoking exploration of history, social media, revolution and verification.

Organized by Hootsuite Labs – a “startup within a startup” – the evening pulled together an impressive line-up of Vancouver personalities: Alfred Hermida, Rachel Nixon, Michael Tippet, Danny Ramadan, and David Godsall. They brought a range of different experiences and viewpoints to the conversation: from upstart citizen journalism outfit Now Public, to the ivory towers of BBC, CBC, and UBC, and right down to front row seats for recent revolutions in the Middle East. The room was packed and ready to listen.

Here are a few take aways:

Hidden in plain sight

The most interesting point for me, made during Hermida’s introduction, were observations on the way that we, as media consumers, relate to the images and personalities presented by social media. Specifically, Hermida proposed that media consumers are drawn to the familiar, to “people like us,” and how that obsession played into a failure to understand what was actually happening during the Egyptian revolution in 2011.

Hermida used the example of American-educated Egyption-born “journalist, blogger and socialist activist” Gigi Ibrahim – a person that “looked like us and spoke like us” – to explain how the mainstream media focused on young, social media savvy personalities like Ibrahim, while ignoring (or not having access to) the predominantly Arab-speaking, Islamic majority that had been organizing politically in the region for more than thirty years.

Hermida used this example to explain how the mainstream media reflected only what we wanted to see, thus missing the movement and ideologies that would win political power in Egypt, surprising many in the west, just a short time later.

Danny Ramadan built on this example with the now well-known story of Amina Arraf, the “Gay Girl in Damascus “ media personality that turned out to be an American man. Again, demonstrating the danger of seeing only what we want to see in social media.

There is no filter bubble

“The ‘filter bubble’ doesn’t exist, the theory is wrong, we should stop saying it does” — Alfred Hermida

Hermida, in response to another panelist, fired a shot across the bow of author Eli Pariser and proposed that the concept of the filter bubble – roughly, the idea that we’re obsessed with news and information that supports our beliefs – is plainly wrong and has been disproven by recent studies.

He went on to explain how the degree to which many of us actually have a lot of weak ties in our online social networks actually works against the idea of a filter bubble by increasing the diversity of views that we’re exposed to when compared to, say, our Friday night drinking crowd.

Very interesting theory. I’m curious to read more on this. I’ve seen some evidence of this recently in my newsfeed, as friends hash out the tensions around vaccinating their children. Drop me a note if you’ve read some research in this area.

Getting past panels

At the end of the evening, I was left wanting more (and that’s never totally a bad thing!).

The format of the evening, a quick talk followed by a panel with four guests and a moderator, felt like it under-utilized the brains on stage and in the room. I wanted to hear more about each panelist’s personal experience – just one small story, perhaps – and I wanted to know more about who was in the room and what questions were burning for them.

With the clock ticking toward 8PM, we only were able to hear from three folks in an audience of more than fifty (I was the first to ask a question, of course!). That feels like a missed opportunity.

Given that this was held at Hootsuite, produced by the Hootsuite Labs, and on the topic of social media, I was also thinking it would have been a great opportunity to perhaps use some social media to invite the “wisdom of the crowd” into the conversation; perhaps just a simple “submit your questions via Twitter” as a place to start? Just a thought. :)

All-in-all: amazing speakers, engaged audience, and a thought-provoking evening. And, at the same time, I reflect back today and wonder: what was the “hidden in plain sight” opportunity? The opportunity that this unique mix of ingredients presented, which wasn’t taken to quite the next level? That’ll be a question I continue to wrestle with in the context of convening people, i.e., now that we’ve got these people here, what’s the one thing we can ask them to do?

By the way, if you’re interested in conversations about how media organizations are using (or aren’t using) social media for sourcing and verification, or how readers are engaging with news, or how the role of “the reporter” is changing, you should join me on Feb 26, 2015 for the re-launch of Hacks/Hackers Vancouver.

Hope to see you there!


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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