Creating ‘spreadable’ news content

The Neiman Lab’s interview with Henry Jenkins’ on the subject of “spreadable media” is a must-read.

Jenkins, a journalism and cinematic arts professor at the University of Southern California, makes a blunt statement about the relevance of news in the social media age: “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.”

Obvious? Perhaps. His point is that news organizations need to better understand how — and why — people take content and re-package it for others. He likens the transaction to a bottle of wine you buy at a store then give to your dinner host. You might put the wine into a decorative bag and tell the cook a story about how you thought of her when you chose that label and vintage.

We bought it as a commodity, we give it as a gift, and the moment of transformation comes when we remove the price tag. We need to better understand the same transformation as consumers take content from commercial sites and circulate it via Twitter or Facebook to their communities.

When people spread content to their social networks, they edit it and add comments to frame it for a specific social purpose. Others might re-mix the content and mash it up — think the Donald Duck and Glenn Beck mashup and, in Canada, Rick Mercer’s Photo Challenge. Sure, these are lighthearted examples. But as Jenkins points out, people make sharing decisions based on the “social or sentimental value of the content.”

I’m reminded of the New York Times’ excellent interactive last week “Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget.” It didn’t provide the tools for a mashup, per se. But it promoted participation — a social experience that people could share with their friends, something people apparently did on Twitter more than 11,000 times.

Jenkins argues news organizations have to be able to meet people in their conversations: “Journalists need to know how they fit into those circuits.”

However, according to Mathew Ingram, even on new platforms such as the iPad, news organizations are lagging in promoting sharable content. Publishers, he argues, seem to be “hoping that you will forget all about the Internet and social media and all of those irritating things that get in between you and the consumption of their wonderful content.”

Jenkins refers to a “constant tension” in the news business between “meter access” and “spreadability.” We can see it in the New York Times’ persistent plan to erect a metered paywall in early 2011, even while being fully cognizant of the power of social media. Jenkins would seem to be skeptical of the Times’ chances in restraining the social nature of the Internet:

News sites which prevent the sharing of such content amongst readers may look like ways to protect the commercial interest of that content, but in fact, they kill it, destroying its value as a cultural resource within networked communities, and insuring that the public will look elsewhere for news that can be spread.”

What to do for the rest of us? A good starting point might be Rohit Bhargava’s 5 New Rules Of Social Media Optimization, which offers tools for getting your content more frequently included social media conversations.

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