If video killed the radio star, social media may be killing the free press.
Earlier this month, Target made headlines in Canada for all the wrong reasons. The story arose after a University of Waterloo professor who was shopping at Target snapped a picture of two pairs of kids pyjamas inspired by popular DC Comics superheroes. One pair featured the message “Future Man of Steel;” the other stated, “I Only Date Heroes.”
The professor posted the picture to Twitter and the story went viral, garnering outrage about gender stereotyping and more photos of kids' clothing with similarly themed messaging.
While not trying to debate the suitability of a young girl’s pajamas inscribed with messaging about who they may or may not want to someday date, there can be no doubt that the resulting Twitter and online outrage was stoked by the contrast between the two messages. The picture of the PJs (which went viral) was clearly taken to maximize the difference between how consumer society treats little girls and little boys – little girls should want to date heroes and little boys should grow up to be heroes. Of course, this is offensive to many.
When I visited my local Target store last week, I was surprised to see there were in fact a bunch of other pyjama choices in this DC Comics line – a girl’s set with the message “Cutest Hero Ever” and a boy's set stating, “I Spent Nine Months in the Bat Cave,” to name only two.
When you see the all the messages, it suddenly doesn't seem quite as misogynistic.
Troubling is not that the photo went viral on social media (individuals presenting a skewed subset of the facts to support their pre-existing position is nothing new); troubling is that the mainstream media jumped on this story without seemingly knowing all the facts. They were happy to echo the message initiated by a handful of online influencers who had not presented a fair and balanced story to begin with.
The cynical view is that we have no one to blame but ourselves. Online news sources (and newspapers especially) have struggled mightily to replicate the revenues they derived from their journalistic efforts in the pre-digital world. Consumers have consistently rejected their online business models, seemingly expecting to get content for free. In fact, publishers have increasingly turned to revenue models which blur the line between editorial independence and sponsored content.
This can’t end well.
But at the heart of every problem lies opportunity. Social tools have emerged which designate influence (Topsy) and allow for social sourcing of news (Hubub) in a potentially more balanced way. Other services, like Newsie (acquired by Linkedin in July) scan the Internet for mentions of anyone in your social networks; Flipboard and Pulse (also acquired by Linkedin) aim to give your social feeds a more magazine-like look and feel.
In fact, social platforms like Linkedin are increasingly focusing on publishing content as a strategy for engaging and retaining users. Will Linkedin tomorrow be what Forbes is today?
Whether it's kids pyjamas, politics, sports or any other issue worthy of public attention and discourse, two things are clear – the very nature of content is changing and the killer app is still waiting to be developed. The next great online CEO may be the one who figures out the dichotomy of providing quality, objective content that consumers are also willing to pay for.