From Interest to Identity: Social Media and Local Journalism Will Lead Us Back

Pinterest is the latest but not the first.

For that title you need to go back to Compuserve and AOL 1.0, back even to the Usenet and BBS systems. You need to add blogs and communities like iVillage to the list, and countless groups, services and platforms dedicated to one thing: Creating Communities of Interest.

They are everywhere now, in places like Facebook and Google Plus, and more recently in Pinterest, which uses visual storytelling to connect people by interest and passion. People are more comfortable in their similarities than in their differences, making Communities of Interest like Pinterest the natural order of things rather than another social media trend.

But while Communities of Interest are like us, they are not “Us.” They are places but not Our Places. They are what we do, what we love – but they are not who we are.

They are not Identity.

This, too, is changing. Communities of Identity are coming. These are the permanent, personal connections – and for many, they are the way back from social media overload, from Communities of Interest that create more distance even as they pull more people together.

Newspapers: The First Communities of Identity

Communities of Identity are already here – in fact they were here long before the electronic media age. We called them local newspapers.

There was a time when all newspapers were local, when “the paper” was both progenitor and steward of a community’s identity. If you wanted to know what a town was like, what made that geography different or special from others, you didn’t need to look any further than the newspaper.

As mass media proliferated, however, newspapers moved away from connecting to their communities by geographic, ethnic or historical roots. Suburban flight, competition and technology forced a homogenization of the news. Papers had to look regionally and nationally, and in doing so they got away from identity and rallied around interest, focusing on broader connections and looser ties.

News became sensationalized. Talking (or yelling) at the audience became more commonplace than listening to people or representing them. Value was placed on sharing common interests, the more “common” the better.

In this environment, news in one paper became indistinguishable from news in another paper thousands of miles away. Identity was gone, replaced by the more treasured metric of “impressions” and “views.”

Journalism Leads the Way Back

This worked for a while – in fact it still works for most, with the emphasis now on aggregating and curating news for Communities of Interest. But the future of news will come more from its past than its present.

News, especially in today’s highly social environments, thrives best when it’s small. Personal connections are emotional, and I’d argue that emotions run deeper when connected to a hometown vs. a hobby.

As the world gets bigger we look for ways to make it smaller and feel a connection to the places and people that define us. “Content” can’t do this but “stories” can. Journalism can lead the way forward by focusing inward.

Community newspapers are not in retreat but rather experiencing a sort of renaissance. According the to the National Newspaper Association, 86 million Americans read community newspapers (papers with 15,000 circulation or less – in other words, 80 percent of all U.S. papers.) The paper is the primary source of news for small communities, 10 times higher than the Internet. And advertising revenues are increasing.

The same can be seen online – digital-only operations such as the Texas Tribune and the St. Louis Beacon are breaking headlines and making money. And beyond news we are seeing growth in Communities of Identity like Ancestry.com, which allow people to connect pan-geographically as well as by common heritage.

Communities of Interest aren’t going anywhere, either – you don’t need to look any further than Pinterest to see that. But even those communities will ebb back toward identity, for the true power of social media is not in how we see others, but in how we see ourselves.

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One Response to From Interest to Identity: Social Media and Local Journalism Will Lead Us Back

  1. Relevancer says:

    Of course people are interested in what’s going on in their neighborhood as it might potentially impact them (think crime, road conditions, local politics). But is a person really defined more by her hometown than by her interests? As a consequence a person’s identity would change everytime her hometown changes.
    We strongly believe that a person’s identity correlates much stronger with her interests and as these don’t change substantially when relocating also her identity doesn’t change substantially just because of that. There are long-term interests deeply rooted in your personal history (family heritage, education, sport, religion), there are the interests dictated by the way you earn your living (profession, technology, finance) and there are the interests caused by your actual environment (hometown, school, local politics). Reducing identity to the last group somehow is a strange thought.

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