Search, in reverse

 Social media news has turned the fundamentals of our early internet use upside down. 

The New York Times tweeted for the first time on March 5, 2007. Here is the account’s first tweet:

110,000 @NYTimes tweets and 8.8 million followers later, where are we with social media news?

Still tweeting headlines and links – but also crowd-sourcing investigations, connecting with readers, curating elements, live-blogging events.

And all of that is very good news, because it reflects a growing chorus of information, a true marketplace of ideas judged on their own merits.

Social media news has turned our early internet experience upside down. It is search in reverse. It is not one person looking up one thing he or she already knows about to get a deeper understanding and keep learning. It is not a process from the specific to the general, but the other way around. It is many topics coming at all of us all the time. We pick out one thing at a time to drill down on, then move on.

And the Search In Reverse of social media news has changed two things forever:

It has changed social media from the narcissistic Who to the infinitely more interesting What. And it has changed the way we read from a focus on comprehension to a focus on awareness.

“Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair than reading on paper,” Ferris Jabr wrote in a Scientific American article titled “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens.” Jabr cites a San Jose State study that found “people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts —they spend more time browsing, scanning and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper.”

On paper we read because we are already impressed, but social news is the activity of constantly assessing stories that are categorized commodities: Twitter does not present entire articles to readers that way a newspaper did; it presents the idea of a new story and the promise that a reader can come back to it.

Facebook enters stories into our stream of consciousness, flowing them by us, allowing us to get an inkling of a story our friends are talking about. We make a mental note (“There’s that thing again…”) and circle back to dig in later.

When I worked at Storify, the social media journalism curation platform cofounded by my friends Burt Herman and Xavier Damman, we used to talk about news elements as Lego pieces we could piece together and break off, use and reuse, discard and come back to.

If that sounds random and incohesive, it need not be. The best social media story I have ever seen is also one of the best stories I have ever seen. Anthony DeRosa’s 2011 Timeline of Protest, Revolution and Uprising is a comprehensive and encyclopedic collection of social media chronicling the year’s biggest story: unrest in Egypt, Russia, Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere. He used Lego to build a Taj Mahal.

Twenty-four centuries ago, Thucydides pioneered journalism by writing about the history of the Peloponnesian War with unblinking realism and the unbiased tone of a recording scientist. DeRosa’s mission is not so different. In between the two scribes were many immature newsboys getting it first and getting it wrong, businessmen trying to sell the public on new platforms, and reactionary curmudgeons afraid that the future would reveal their intellectual creakiness.

The truth will tell the truth, take the form it wants, uncover lies, and break silos. If I were a politician or a businessman, I would fear it, too.