Is Social Media Ruining Everything, or Merely Most Things?

Arianna Huffington writes at length, with links, about perhaps one of the first world-iest of all problems. Now that The Huffington Post’s traffic has surpassed that of every other pre-existing news site, is it time to rethink the journalism of LOL and viral and TRENDING?

[W]hat are we evolving toward? And what is the price we are paying by feeding the virality beast? Fetishizing “social” has become a major distraction, and we’re clearly a country that loves to be distracted. Our job in the media is to use all the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter – as well as the stories that entertain – and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story. When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, or that downward mobility is trending upward, or that over 5 million people have been without a job for half a year or more, or that millions of homeowners are still underwater. And just as easily, we can ignore all the great instances of compassion, ingenuity, and innovation that are changing lives and communities.

None of those links go to HuffPost stories, even though the publication has published reams of smart, reported stuff about unemployment – much of it by the talented Arthur Delaney. But I can’t be the only person who reads this and flashes back to what Ben Smith said when he left Politico for BuzzFeed, founded by HuffPost promethean Jonah Peretti.

In his Politico post announcing the move, Smith said he intended to help make BuzzFeed “the first true social news organization.” I asked him in an email what exactly he meant by that. “We’re going to operate on the assumption that the main way readers get our stories is through sharing, and that we should be writing the sort of things people want to share,” he wrote back. “There’s a huge advantage organizing yourself around the distribution model that is actually how people get news.”

We have no special reason to think that Huffington was dismissing BuzzFeed in particular, but the stories mentioned in her post are not BuzzFeed-esque stories. Wait, hang on. Rosie Gray published a story this week on the shortcomings of the New G.I. Bill, and it has been shared 291 by the rangy virality beasts of Facebook. There’s plenty of traffic-grubbing stuff on BuzzFeed, too, as there is on HuffPost today. (HuffPost has gotten 4000-odd Facebook shares for a carbon copy of BuzzFeed’s resurrection of the Obama Harvard rally video.) I see both sites making a trade-off. The viral content is a tax paid to keep traffic and ads churning, so that the more serious stuff – which may or may not be read by anybody – can be cooked in a separate kitchen.

But it’s possible that I’m inventing a spat out of nothing. My conversations with a lot of reporters on the trail have been revealing; I don’t think there are any reporters who believe that the current viral-viral-meme churn of coverage is good or rewarding.