Alone with social networks in Perigord, France


imageIn Perigord, France, five journalists spent five days in an isolated farmhouse using only Twitter and Facebook to connect to the world. The aim of the social experiment was to see how good the two social networks are at providing information.

The journalists were not completely cut off from traditional media sources. The rules allowed them to click on links posted on social networks, including links to blogs and news websites. But they could not browse websites or visit the Twitter and Facebook accounts of professional media outlets

Self promotion?

Some critics dismissed the experiment as an exercise in self promotion.

“The project aims to show the superiority of traditional media at providing information,” said Colette Brin, a media professor at Laval University in Canada, quoted in Canadian newspaper Le Devoir.

The participants - journalists from public radio stations in Belgium, Canada, France and Switzerland - claim that they entered the experiment without this intent.

Reporting daily on a collective blog and by phone on their radio stations, the journalists described the information they found through their restricted sources. The themes they came across only partly matched the themes covered by the mainstream media.

“On Twitter there is a huge amount of soft news. There is also a lot of very interesting news about new technologies. … But for politics and economics it takes longer,” concluded Nicolas Willems of Belgium’s RTBF, on air after the experiment.

Building a network

The key for the radio journalists to finding varied and reliable information was to build an appropriate network.
“It takes a long time to develop a good network and to know credible people. And it also takes a lot of time to monitor this network,” Willems said.

Janic Tremblay of Radio France also reflected on finding people to follow: “There are some obviously useful contributors. Politicians, journalists, new technology specialists. Groups like Greenpeace or institutions like the UN. But then it gets complicated. Where do you go? Who do you follow? How do you find them?”

One of the highlights of the journalists’ work in the Perigord was to find a Russian dissident who claimed via Twitter that he was in custody of Russian officials. They got in touch with him and interviewed him by telephone after he was reportedly released.

Facebook useful too

Out of the two social networking sites, Twitter was by far the most used and discussed. But Anne-Paule Martin of Switzerland’s RSR noted that Facebook was more useful than she first thought. She used Facebook to find contacts.

“I found more accurate answers on Facebook, perhaps because the identity of users is clearer. And the tone was definitely more courteous,” she told RTBF after the experiment.

Facebook claims 15 million users in France. Twitter, a more basic tool, is used by some 9 percent of French Internet users, according to a survey ordered by Atelier-BNP Paribas, a new media and business think tank. The main uses of Twitter are “finding good deals and coupons” and “creating a friend network”, the survey found.

Separate worlds

The five journalists noted there is still a strong antagonism between social media enthusiasts and traditional media purists in the French-speaking world.

“I have the impression that these are two worlds that don’t understand each other - they don’t understand how the other works,“Nour-Eddine Zidane, a participant from radio France Inter, said on RTBF.
“Some Twitter users criticized us for not communicating enough via Twitter, even though we were blogging and speaking on our radios. (…) They don’t really understand our profession. On the other hand it’s true that, out of ignorance, some journalists think that social networks are new media, when they are in fact new tools,” he added. “There is a lot of explaining to do.”

Social media consultant Martin Lessard came to the same conclusion.

“The experiment was in fact an exercise to bring two worlds together. …Now they should focus on this issue full time and not just ‘for a simple experiment’,” he wrote on his blog.

Flickr image from user hellolapomme