She may be known for her role in harnessing bloggers and social media to deliver news, but Arianna Huffington concedes there are “snakes in the garden” she helped create.
During her closing keynote address at the Digital Media Summit in Toronto on Thursday, the editor-in-chief of AOL Huffington Post Media Group called for an end to what she describes as “the fetishization of things going viral.”
“We have to stop treating virality as a good unto itself,” she told a capacity crowd. “We need to stop living in a kind of perpetual now where everything is breaking news.”
Though Huffington celebrated the fact that social media has leveled the playing field, giving anyone with passion and an interesting argument a way to be heard, she stressed that what’s trending on websites like Twitter isn’t always worthy of a prime spot in the news cycle.
To illustrate her point, she cited the 2009 "Balloon Boy" hoax, which dominated news media for days after a Colorado couple told authorities their son had been carried off in a helium balloon, when in fact he was holed up in their home.
“[The news media] were non-stop showing pictures of an empty balloon, even after they knew the boy was not in the balloon,” she said, prompting chuckles from the audience when she described the six-year-old child at the centre of the controversy as “the boy in the attic.”
“That’s one of the big problems that social media accentuates,” she said.
Huffington also expressed concern about the tendency of media organizations to focus on bad news -- or as she described it, the “what bleeds leads” philosophy.
“We in the media have done a bad job of putting the spotlight on what is working. We tend to always emphasize what is dysfunctional, what isn’t working. It’s time for us to also put the spotlight on what is working,” she said, citing ideas like Kickstarter, an online crowdsourcing platform for funding creative projects.
“If we’re going to scale these great innovations, we need to put the spotlight on them. We need people to know about them,” she added, explaining that this was the rationale for launching a new section of the U.S. edition of The Huffington Post dedicated entirely to “good news” stories.
Looking forward, Huffington reiterated her long-held vision of new media as a “hybrid,” offering traditional journalism as well as a platform to “anyone with something to say.”
She said it's already clear that a dramatic transformation has taken place.
“In the past, people used to consume news sitting on a couch. Now they consume news galloping on a horse,” she said, quoting rapper Will.i.am.
“They don’t just consume it, they share it, they pass it on,” she added. “Engagement is the key.”