CULTURE

How to be heard in a world of noise

?I am not a social media consultobot. I don?t have a magic formula for making stuff work ? no one does, really.? Despite her humble pronouncements, since arriving at the Guardian headquarters in London, Meg Pickard, head of digital engagement for Guardian News and Media, has seen the site?s traffic skyrocket to a record 37 million unique visitors a month.

A self-described creative geek with a background in social anthropology (some years ago she wandered highland Bolivia to conduct ethnographic research), Pickard abandoned the academic environment for the bright lights of the Internet some 12 years ago, working for startups as well as giant corporations like AOL.

Invited to Athens by the British Council, Pickard visited the Greek capital last week to give a speech on social media.

She spoke to Athens Plus about how powerful Internet tools such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are changing the way in which information is produced, distributed and consumed and how this is impacting the mainstream media.

Do you think that the traditional media can survive without embracing social media?

I think they can survive. But it will be a particularly lonely existence in the future.

As news organizations are embracing digital more generally and people are reading and engaging and sharing and doing all of these things with the content you put out there, it seems like an odd thing to turn away from. So even if you, as a news organization, did not chose to participate on Facebook, you would probably want to support other people sharing your things on Facebook.

Even if you, as a news organization, chose not to be on Twitter, you would probably be delighted if other people were talking about and promoting and sharing links to your things on Twitter. So I think you can make a distinction between active publishing to social media spaces and embracing the organic social activity that is already taking place around your site.

So the question would be: Does your newspaper have a website? Are people already sharing it? If they are then, sorry, but you are already using social media ? or social media are already affecting your business. So a really short answer to your question is, yes, they can survive, but if you imagine that future metrics are going to be less about circulation and more about reach and engagement, then social media can only help in this direction.

Are we perhaps overestimating the impact of social media? After all, they are to a large degree rehashing information that has already been produced by the traditional media, which are doing the dirty work of investigation and cross-checking of facts.

When people talk about things like collaboration and participation by users, citizen journalism and all that, I think that if you imagine that this is going to take the place of the media, then you?re kind of thinking about it wrong. It?s ?as well as,? not ?instead of.? Things like social media do not tell the story for us, they help us see where the story is.

You recently wrote an article in the Guardian about social media rules for journalists. You said ?a good journalist should be able to support a particular football team at the weekend but put aside his loyalties when reporting on another.? Are social media forcing us to have multiple identities?

I don?t think they are forcing us to have multiple identities. I think they are forcing us to be clear about which identity we are speaking with at a time.

So I think you are going to see a lot more journalists ? or, for that matter, company employees ? putting disclaimers on their blogs or on their Twitter accounts saying, ?I am not speaking on behalf of my employer,? or whatever.

A good journalist is somebody who is not a robot; a good journalist is somebody who can be excited and interested and inspired by all of their information on a subject and still tell a story in a way that is valuable and useful, and not somebody who makes every output the same just because they like Manchester United. That is bad journalism.

I tweet, therefore I am: Security, activism and narcissism

Google and Facebook have been criticized for their handling of private information. Do you share such security concerns?

I think that Google, certainly around the Buzz [a social networking and messaging tool that is integrated into e-mail program Gmail] experience and so on, has learned that just because you can do something as an engineer does not necessarily mean that you should do something. It was like a social product designed by engineers because it was clever, not because it was sensitive or useful.

I think that privacy is something that people want to have more control over as individuals, and I think that it is always worrying when companies take liberties with information that we have entrusted to them.

Facebook is slightly different. I recently got a wedding invitation which at the bottom said, ?Please take many photos and share them with us and with each other but please don?t upload any of them to Facebook.? Facebook?s copyright restrictions say that if you upload a picture they can use it for anything they want. That?s a worry.

Much of online youth activism is superficial: the idea that you can support the opposition movement in Iran or the liberation of Tibet with a click.

It?s easy to like something. It?s hard to actually engage. Well, I think that issues and people who are lobbying for things need to work harder to get people to actually engage beyond the ?like? button or engage beyond the ?support now? button. How do you get people to put their money where their mouth is? Some charities, like Amnesty International, are doing interesting work in this area, figuring out ways that they can extend that simple low barrier to entry and try to actually extend it to something else.

I have to say that much of the tweets and Facebook feeds smacks of narcissism and self-promotion. Do social media cause narcissism or are they merely an outlet for those who are already narcissistic?

I think people who are already narcissistic have always sought outlets for their narcissism. If you are a narcissist, you will always find a way to promote yourself on any platform ? whether that is the bus or Twitter. That is just a facet of people?s innate need to express themselves to the world in some way. I think Twitter can do things, can be useful, but that the main use, as you exactly allude to, is finding the signal. In a thousand tweets, how do you find the one that you really need to see? And that?s partly about curation, it?s partly about how these things bubble to the top, it?s partly about how these things appear in your networks.

You have a great camera but other people with that camera take photos of themselves, endlessly at arm?s length so they can put them on Facebook. It?s what you do with technology that counts. The technology is not to blame.

Would you say that technology is neutral, just a tool?

I wouldn?t say it?s value-free. I think it?s an enabler and it inspires us to do things, but I don?t think that we can blame technology for human failings.

Wisdom of crowds

Technologist Janor Lanier has attacked many of the Internet?s sacred cows, including the ?wisdom of crowds.?

The phrase ?wisdom of crowds? is used a lot at the moment in the wrong way. Francis Galton, who came up with the idea, was talking about the ability for a lot of people to somehow, without knowing about each other, settle upon the right answer to something. So, in his case, it was people at a fairground guessing the weight of a cow. And they had 160 people or whatever it was and they all guessed the weight of the cow and the average number was the exact weight of the cow.

So what does that tell us? It tells us that if you get enough guesses, statistics will do the rest. That is what the wisdom of crowds is all about. It says that the crowd as a whole is more intelligent or is cleverer than one individual on their own. When people talk about ?wisdom of the crowds? at the moment, they are talking about crowds as forces for good.

In fact, crowds have good elements and bad elements and it depends what they are pointing toward or what they are united against.