Anti-social networking and the madness of New York

The splendid library at Columbia University

The best speaker at Columbia University’s recent Social Media Weekend in New York was a photographer who didn’t seem to care much about social media at all.

Rick Smolan, the man behind the “Day in a Life” series of photographic books from the 1980s, displayed a kind of laid-back sincerity that in the context of the weekend was refreshing. He’s planning a massive worldwide event called “Reflections on a digital mirror”.

The idea is that 10 million people around the world download an iPhone app which records their location, photographs their surroundings and documents their feelings on a single day in June.

That data is then compiled somehow. A book is printed and sent to 10,000 “key influencers”.

Smolan’s vision of the global “coming together” stood apart from much of the rest of the conference because it lacked the frenetic focus on self-promotion.

Over the three days of the conference there was a lot of emphasis on Twitter and the mechanics of how to make yourself heard amid the welter of social noise. Things tended to be platform-centric – by which I mean that most people were thinking about the delivery method, rather than the content.

There was no discussion of what stories get shared and why. There was no discussion of how social distribution will change the actual news that media outlets run. One opportunity to explore content, when the social editors from Mashable appeared on stage, was marred by a presentation so egocentric it was difficult to watch. (Did you know that “charisma” is one of the secret ingredients that makes Mashable so amazing?)

Throughout the presentations people in the audience used iPads, phones, and laptops. Often they were not paying attention. Columbia social media professor Sree Sreenivasan, who organised the event, kept compulsively announcing the event’s own social media metrics (see and encouraging everyone to tweet more.

During Sreenivasan’s own presentation, on how to improve your social profile, his phone sounded a bell incessantly – he had set it up to ring every time he was mentioned on Twitter. It was mad, distracting, and pointless. I have never seen Twitter’s tendency to empty vanity better illustrated.

There was interesting material. Brian Stelter, from the New York Times, told everyone to Tweet less. Stelter believes that different stories suit different digital media and that a tornado story, for example, is perfect for Twitter whereas other stories “require 10,000 words”.

Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist with a track record of investing in successful companies, said he thinks social media will “fragment into magazine-style niches” rather than turn into a Facebook monopoly.

His reason for thinking this is that he sees social media as a content business, fundamentally different from engineering businesses like Google and Yahoo that found great success in early internet history.

Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s news program manager, told how the “subscribe” function now available on Facebook came about because of his awkwardness in having to reject people he didn’t know who tried to friend him. “Subscribe” is the solution you use for those who you only want to have access to the posts you specify as public.

He also mentioned that 285 million photos are posted on Facebook every day, something which is probably public knowledge but blew me away nonetheless.

Lavrusik is a young, sharp guy who definitely gives the impression of being hungry for stories. It feels like he should be writing and interviewing, not strategising for one of the world’s biggest software/engineering companies.

Facebook’s Chris Ackermann spoke after Lavrusik and what he said rang true – that software services should be built around people in order to cut through. He used friend tagging in Facebook photos as an example – the service elevated Facebook photos from nowhere to the world’s biggest picture service in a very short period. His point was that when tagging was introduced on FB, other photo sites had far more sophisticated tools – cropping, red-eye reduction, etc – but could not match that ability to identify individuals.

I will file other observations from the conference in coming days.


Hal Crawford

About Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is ninemsn's Editor-in-Chief. He began his career at The West Australian newspaper and has taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Twitter: @halcrawford

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