Tumblr recently hired an “embedded journalist” to cover its user community, causing some to scratch their heads: Why would a social media company pay a reporter to write about its own customers?
I’ve been asking the opposite question for years: Why doesn’t every social media company have an embedded reporter? I’m amazed there isn’t one working for Facebook, Twitter, and all the other giants; it’s a huge missed opportunity.
Let me explain my perspective: In 2003 (as some of the Tumblr coverage has noted), Linden Lab contracted me to be its embedded journalist in Second Life, its just-created, user-generated 3D virtual world game, to cover SL’s user community as an emerging society. (I played the role as an avatar in a Tom Wolfe-style white suit.)
I assumed the gig would last around three months. It lasted three years and helped drive the media hype wave that Second Life experienced in 2006 and 2007.
I wish I could claim most of the credit, but it wasn’t difficult to find endlessly fascinating, strange, sad, thought-provoking, hilarious vignettes in SL’s lovably quirky community.
Second Life is hardly unique in this. Whether it’s a Facebook group raising funds for a family in need, or the tweets of revolutionaries in Syria, social media are rich with human experience. The trouble is, most stories are lost in the cascade of constant updates and confined to a small node of users within the larger network.
It’s a digital-age paradox: These sites are frequented by hundreds of millions, but they have little contact or awareness of each other, no larger sense of community, place, narrative. A journalist can help create these by telling the social network’s stories. From a hard business perspective, this translates into increased engagement rates, brand awareness, advertising dollars.
If a social media company told me it was considering the wisdom of an embed, I’d make three points:
Social media users usually don’t realize they’re interesting. One of the very first people I interviewed in Second Life was a woman who proudly showed off her beautiful virtual mansion by the sea -- then casually mentioned (as if it wasn’t relevant) that she built it while homeless in real life. I’ve no doubt there are hundreds of similar untold stories beneath the surface of popular YouTube videos, say, or popular Flickr groups.
Social media users want social media companies to know they’re valued.
To be sure, a company’s embedded journalist is in a tenuous position, being paid to report about its own users. Fortunately, Linden Lab was willing to let me write articles with little oversight. It was a risk that paid results. For instance, consider an early story about a Linden pricing change that was so hated by SLers, it provoked a “tax revolt” replete with muskets and battle flags. The post went viral, led to an academic debate on the rights of MMO players, and vastly increased SL’s mindshare. It also made me Linden Lab’s ombudsman, giving its users a voice -- and the company a chance to publicly acknowledge their grievances (as opposed to letting them fester, ignored, on third-party sites).
The future of media will focus on social media -- for good and ill. As Second Life began its hype wave, Linden Lab ended my days as embedded journalist. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake. A deluge of traditional journalists from Reuters and other outlets followed, and since they weren’t very familiar or comfortable with the SL community, they devoted more coverage to real-world companies trying to advertise (unsuccessfully) in the world, or to its more sordid aspects (pornography, adultery, etc.). This coverage soon overshadowed the far more interesting and deeper stories of social emergence still happening in Second Life. As a result, the product and its brand suffered.
A similar trend is happening across the social media landscape, as mass media outlets increasingly turn to Facebook and elsewhere for news. Many stories depict these platforms in their worst possible light, as a haven for stalkers, for example, or worse. Much of this coverage misses the best examples of these platforms at their most powerful and inspiring.
So whether they like it or not, social media companies’ option now is this: Help tell your users' stories, or let outsiders do that for you, in ways that aren’t always fair.
— Wagner James Au is a writer and consultant in social media and gaming. He blogs about virtual worlds at New World Notes. Follow him on Twitter: @SLHamlet.