Amy Selwyn is the Managing Director of News Xchange, the international news industry’s premier annual event, and a consultant to media companies on strategy and market positioning. Increasingly, Amy’s work takes her into social media strategy and how to curate conversation. Amy has worked with The New York Times, The Associated Press, the BBC and the European Broadcasting Union, among others, and is a quirky combination: a nut for antiquity and a big fan of pop culture!
Q: Being connected: There is a surprising power in social networks. They seem to shape our lives one way or another. How do you view this trend?
A: I don’t believe there is anything new in the concept of social networks. If we think about what a social network is –a set of people who are connected by a set of relationships, which can range from friendship to work to a shared interest in a cause or an activity – they’ve clearly been around forever. What IS new is the technology and the platforms that enable social networks to now exist virtually. The Web is social. It’s about participating and collaborating. It’s about two-, three- and five-hundred way conversation; network sizes are infinite and no longer constrained by geography or proximity. The networks are open, and that has tremendous – and exciting – implications for participation, influence and discourse. Connectedness is driving how we relate and share information, and part of the work is determining how connected we want to be at any given time.
Q: Social networks: can they impact politics, political or/and social change?
A: Yes, I believe social networks are having tremendous influence on politics, activism and social change. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter, for example, give us the ability to amplify our messages. Movements have usurped campaigns, and movements have the distinct advantage of being emotional and requiring conviction. Someone lights a small fire on FB and pretty soon it’s a full-blown, five-alarm movement, with friends and friends of friends and friends of their friends posting, commenting, interacting, hitting “like”, advocating a boycott, “friending” one another. And, where social environments are more open there is greater freedom to assemble, to borrow from the language of the U.S. Constitution. The assemblies can be physical or they can be virtual, and they translate to broader collaboration and problem solving. These are key drivers to social change. To give a quick example, look at what went on in June 2009 during the Iranian elections. Nearly a half a million Twitter users commented on the events during the first two weeks of the protests, and 160,000 people used a tool to turn their Twitter icons green in support of the protesters. The tool, available for free on www.helpiranelection.com, was promoted virally, and it brought tens of thousands of people into the story. That’s what I believe we’re seeing today: the audience is part of the story because social networks enable that kind of engagement and participation.
Q: Has the nature of information changed? For example, has information become a shared social experience?
A: No, I don’t believe so. What has changed is the nature of gathering, disseminating and processing information. In the “old days”, information was disseminated according to a broadcast model: one to many. Today, information is gathered and disseminated much more laterally. And it is customized. Information about a news story might originate from someone other than a journalist. A citizen. He or she takes photos or video, sends it to CNN and simultaneously posts it to FB. He or she tweets about what’s happening. Other people start adding to the story – maybe these others are fellow eyewitnesses or maybe they’re interested in the nature of the story. Maybe, for example, it’s a story about water and so you have water experts and irrigation experts and people interested in democratizing water consumption. The conversation gets wider and wider and also – and I believe this is incredibly important – deeper and deeper. And it may turn out to be the case that the blogger from a small town in Michigan is actually a more valuable information source than The New York Times, depending on which part of the conversation someone finds most relevant. Old hierarchies of editorial supremacy tumble down in this new world order of shared social experience. At the same time, the other question I think we need to ask is, Has the nature of reporting – i.e., journalism – changed? And I think there we do see some significant changes. The journalist’s job is to report the facts. Today, however, that journalist has added responsibilities. Specifically, the journalist must now actively seek more perspectives and, at the same time, serve as a filter for the information, separating fact from fiction of course, but also separating fact from opinion, and presenting both but clarifying which is which. This is why I believe that more and more we are turning to an art form of curating information rather than simply processing it. It’s a big difference.
Q: Do you share the view that the Internet comes together with issues such as misinformation, fabricated news and a gap of trust?
A: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that there is now more information out there than ever before and therefore the margin for error is greater. But also no in the sense that there is always a risk of misinformation, lies and unreliable (not trustworthy) sources. The Internet doesn’t create that problem. The upside to all of this is that misinformation can be corrected more easily and in real-time or close to real-time. Imagine the Tylenol scare in a digital world. More rumors and possibly less accurate reporting; but, in the end, a faster, more viral ability for the manufacturers to respond. I believe that the margin for error also means that trusted sources of information will fortify their brands. We see this during big stories as they evolve. People may comb the web for all kinds of specific, targeted, narrowcasted information, but as soon as something major happens they flock to sites like The New York Times or the BBC. So in some ways this creates a real opportunity for trusted brands.
Q: Who are the new influencers of our world? Politicians? The Media? Entrepreneurs? The People?
A: I think people are the new influencers. I like Erik Qualman’s idea that Word of Mouth has gone World of Mouth. Or what happens in Vegas stays on YouTube. The conversation is open, as we’ve said before, and it’s broader and less constrained. The influence of bloggers, podcasters and the nearly 1 billion users of Facebook, for example, cannot be overstated. One factoid to prove the point. According to Facebook, the average “liker” has 2.4 times the number of friends than the typical FB user and is more interested in exploring content they discover on Facebook — they click on 5 times the number of links to external sites than the average FB user. So this person — the one who is exerting his or her influence — is clear a powerful part of any conversation about brand, brand experience, product value, customer service, etc.
Q: Innovation: how do you define it and how important is it for progress and development?
A: I read a great definition of innovation in a blog called Broken Bulbs. This being the age of shared information, I’m going to “borrow” it now! Innovation is the profitable implementation of ideas. And we need to think strategically – smartly, creatively — about our use of the word profit. We need to push past financial profit to include social and brand value. Innovation is key to progress and development. When we look for ways to profitably implement ideas – whether that’s to learn something, to experiment, to change our culture, to make money, to raise brand awareness, whatever – then we take the chance of trying and failing. And that opens the door for real progress: the willingness to fail! I think Google shows us this in a big way. They launch products and sometimes those products fail. Google Wave, a real-time collaboration tool, was a failure and Google canceled the product. That company has a culture that accepts that failure is an integral part of innovation. As a result, they launch more products and services and they shut them down when they don’t work. They challenge their assumptions and, in so doing, they continually redefine innovation.
Q: Collective Wisdom: Do you believe in it, what do you think it represents?
A: I do believe in collective wisdom. I think it represents the power of inclusion over the limitations of exclusion. What I mean by that is that an acceptance of and an active pursuit of collective wisdom requires us to expand our sample sizes. We need to look for more perspectives, especially those that do not conform to our own. When we put the information together to form the collective wisdom on a given topic or question, we are giving fuller context. Context shapes how we understand our world and, equally, how we live in it. And what actions we take. The stories we create through collective wisdom are more compelling and more complete because they reflect collective perspectives. That makes them more appealing to other communities and therefore a key ingredient to bridge building. With bridges, our communities are expanded to include new voices.
Q: What does “global” mean to you? Abolition of borders? Way of thinking? Something else?
A: Global is a mindset. A way of seeing the world. It’s the world’s markets, the world’s people, the world’s interconnectivity. To think globally or to have a global mindset requires two things, I believe. First, we need to understand how our own culture has influenced our assumptions and our beliefs. And second, we need to apply that same process and understanding to other peoples’ assumptions and beliefs. And then, third step, we need to see how differences and similarities affect our ability to connect and collaborate.
Q: Is the Internet an “Electronic Republic” where everyone can have their say?
A: I’m cautiously optimistic on this one. I think that our various forms of real-time communication, including social media platforms, coupled with portable devices like the iPhone, the BlackBerry and most especially the iPad give an increasing number of people the ability to make their voice heard. So we’ve got more active, more real-time reporting. And we’ve got more perspectives and even increased watchdogging. BUT, and there is a but here, the conversation is still largely limited to those with the economic means to participate. I think we achieve a truly “Electronic Republic” when class and socioeconomic biases are greatly reduced. We’re not there yet.
Q: Do you have a specific mission to accomplish these days? Give us something negative and something positive about it.
A: I do have a mission. It’s to help companies shape strategies for influencing and curating conversation through social media. I bring my coaching background into the act, as well, so that we can work on things like letting go of the fear of negative press…! The negative side is that I cannot stand in front of a potential client (or more likely be at the other end of a Skype connection) and swear that I have the definitive answers OR that what we come up with today will be valid for three years and therefore worth the investment on an ROI basis. It’s far more fluid, still evolving. The positive side is that the work becomes about exploration, creativity and engagement. Far more fun!
Q: Do you have a vision for your country?
A: America is a very complicated place. My vision for my country is that we continue to connect with our naturally optimistic and creative side and that we use those traits to help us solve problems. That we draw on the rich diversity of opinion and custom here in this country, and we harness that collective wisdom to do good. That will mean connecting with other countries and rejecting isolationism – a dangerous specter on the horizon.
Q: And a vision for the world?
A: Greater connectivity. A willingness to listen for the new voices. The bravery to admit that different is different, not wrong. The wisdom to travel light but always remember to bring two key things to everything we do: our humanity and our senses of humor.