Journalism in Social Media Pitfall #1: Snooping

by Jason Preston on December 22, 2008

In the world of social media, there are things that are done and things that are not done. Unfortunately for the newcomer, the things not done aren’t always obvious.

The first and one of the more common errors I see journalists making is this: snooping. Tools like Facebook and Twitter seem to be very voyeuristic by nature. The main reason you’re not creepy if you’re on Facebook is that you’re participating in the community.

Participation is the number one ingredient for getting value from new social media tools. And if people find out that you’re logged in and poking around (in other words, the digital equivalent of wandering around in people’s back yards and looking through the windows), they’re not going to be too quick to invite you into their home.

If you want in on social media—and you do—make sure you commit to it, and don’t do it in secret.

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1 Wade Rockett 12.22.08 at 11:31 am

Hmm. Could you be specific about what behavior constitutes “snooping” (as opposed to doing research or simply listening)?

I don’t think the analogy of creeping around someone’s back yard and peering in their windows describes the reality of social media, in which people publish the details of their lives online to be read by anyone who stops by.

2 Jason Preston 12.22.08 at 1:23 pm

By snooping, I mean that, for example, if you’re on Facebook, you should upload some profile information and talk with people.

I think that right now a lot of people feel that the internet is a “public, broadcast space,” where anything you see is “fair game.” That’s going to change quickly, because that’s not how the younger generation treats it.

Clay Shirky explains this concept way better than I can in his book “Here Comes Everybody,” but the upshot is that just because something is on the internet doesn’t make it “public” in the same way that putting something on TV is “public.”

It’s public like something you told your friend in a mall (public space, private conversation)

3 Benjamin Lukoff 12.22.08 at 2:00 pm

My rule of thumb has been to never post ANYTHING to the publicly accessible Web that I wouldn’t want anyone and everyone to be able to see. I suppose I should also follow that rule for personal e-mail, but I don’t.

Will be interesting to see how this pans out.

4 Andrew Weaver 12.22.08 at 5:46 pm

I completely agree with you on this. By snooping, lurking, or whatever you want to call it, you will have a difficult time gaining any value from the social network. Participation is the key.

I have noticed an increase of stories on Twitter by mainstream news outlets (Newsweek, ABC News, etc.). In each, the stories barely touched the surface of what it Twitter is. I suspect this is because many of those doing the work on these stories are not actually participating. They’re snooping.

5 Dana Blozis 12.22.08 at 8:48 pm

Jason, that’s an interesting perspective. Even at 41, I’m still naive and I would have never thought to do such a thing, but it makes complete sense. I know employers look at Facebook and MySpace pages to find out more about their prospective hires and employees, but I never thought of someone else (like the media) doing it surreptitiously. Thanks for the wake-up call. I had never considered that. Dana B.

6 Jay Oatway 12.23.08 at 1:57 am

Journos snooping around Facebook — a bit like going through people’s garbage — just not on, brother!

7 david 12.23.08 at 8:05 pm

I do agree with your statement that if you’re on facebook, you should upload some info, but I don’t think you can really knock anybody for looking at information that’s been posted online. If it’s posted in a publicly accessible location it IS public, whether the person who posted it wants to consider it public or not. It’s very easy to set a facebook or myspace profile to private and the ONLY reason to not to, is to allow people who aren’t your friends to see your profile.

I think your claim that looking at people’s info is the “digital equivalent of wandering around in people’s back yards and looking through the windows” is way off base. I think a better analogy for the situation you’re describing would be someone who posts their info on their front fence and then gets mad that people look at it because “isn’t it obvious that it’s only for my friends to look at?!”

The idea that we can or should post private information in a publicly accessible space, and then just trust that people wont look, is unrealistic, and also kind of creepy.

8 Jason Preston 12.24.08 at 4:29 pm

Benjamin – That’s a good policy – don’t upload anything you’re uncomfortable with, or, as the classic rule goes: “you wouldn’t want your mother to see.”

Andrew – you’re exactly right, social media tools are interactive in nature, and you’re not going to develop and understand of them or an appreciation of their value unless you are actively participating.

Dana – I don’t think it’s a malicious practice in most cases, I think that people are just hesitant to dive in, so they sit on the edge and think “I’ll just watch for a bit.”

The problem is that sitting on the sidelines is a good way to miss important value from the service and one of the best ways to engender ill-will from the snoopees.

david – I think you’re missing the point. People don’t get upset that their info is seen/read/noticed; you’re right that in many cases that is exactly the point of putting it up there. What annoys people is when they feel spied upon.

It is literally the difference between announcing yourself and NOT announcing yourself. Call it hypocritical, dumb, annoying, or whatever you like, but it IS the existing etiquette, and I’m here to warn you that snooping WILL backfire on you, whether you think it’s justified or not.

9 Wade Rockett 12.24.08 at 4:35 pm

While I believe that publicly-posted information is, well, public, I agree with Jason that one’s long-term goals are better served by fully participating in social networks. By doing so, you can build relationships with people who will then willingly and gladly send you leads about issues that they know are important to you.

10 Tracy at WSB 12.24.08 at 4:46 pm

Here’s what I think is a more interesting side of this issue – Say you are on Facebook or Twitter as your brand more than yourself. I’m not there as Tracy (well, I am, but I don’t use those accounts much), I’m there as @westseattleblog, etc. I share a bit of personal stuff, more “behind the scenes” than anything TMI-esque. But for example, if someone follows me on Twitter and I take a look at their account very quickly and note it’s intensely personal stuff – I don’t follow them – it feels like I’d be doing exactly the “looking into windows” sort of thing you mention. On FB, that’s unavoidable – we’ve started posting more shared links there and other hints at what we and the site are up to, and so a few hundred more people have friended us, which means I’m “seeing” personal notes they’ve made, hints at family videos they’ve posted (I don’t follow the links, setting some boundaries on myself) – nothing terribly embarrassing so far, these are pretty much all grownups, but once in a while I will jump in and add a comment to something one of them has said, not necessarily directly to me, and then think “Hm, wonder if that seems creepy to them?” Interesting …

11 Jason Preston 12.24.08 at 5:16 pm

Wade – word.

Tracy – thanks for your input as always! My spidey sense tells me that you’re approaching it all very sensibly. I think it’s actually better that you are going in and leaving your input on things. That’s smart outreach and community building, and it makes it far less awkward if you ever want to reach out to these people. Plus I think they appreciate that you’re listening and not just a bland marketing presence.

12 Mónica Guzmán 12.25.08 at 1:21 pm

This is a fascinating discussion. I agree wholeheartedly and through a great deal of first-hand experience that the only way to gain the full benefit of the community – both as a person and as a journalist – is to be part of the community.

I’ve met several in my profession who dip their toes in social media, evaluate its usefulness for their profession based only on that superficial experience, and refuse – often out of an understandable but incompatible fear of exposure – to dive in head-first or to give it another go. I have long felt that any judgment of social media based on such light engagement is uninformed and baseless.

As for Jason’s analogy, I’ll revise it this way: Journalists who use what others put on social media networks but refuse to put up much info themselves are less like local snoopers than like reclusive, mysterious residents in a tightly knit neighborhood. When everyone is sharing, the ones who don’t stand out. So while many in this neighborhood might open up wholeheartedly to those they know are as engaged in the community as they are, you can bet that when the reclusive neighbor comes a-knocking, they’ll be less willing, less open and less friendly.

As a journalist, I have often found good potential sources on Facebook or Twitter I would not have found anywhere else. When I see these people’s information on these sites and send them a request for more, I feel better knowing that upon receipt of my message they are free to click through my tweets, see my Facebook status updates, view my profile pictures and read my self-definitions. In other words, they are as free to learn as much about me as I am about them. I believe my high level of engagement ensures at least a level playing field, making it far more likely that the people I contact will be open with me, knowing that I not only use but participate in the community in which I found them.

Of course, motive is important, too. I was on social media before I was a journalist. I am engaged in it because I like it, because it holds many personal rewards, not because a fellow journalist told me I should join to do better work. So I sympathize with journalists who are being pressured into joining these networks but lack a personal, organic connection to them. That’s not ideal. And I’ve also long thought that if you don’t personally enjoy participating in social networks, you shouldn’t – period.

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