I came across some chatter on Twitter today regarding some kind of issue around something “veteran journalist” Marites Vitug wrote about the Philippines’ University of Santo Tomas reportedly granting a doctorate in law, summa cum laude, to Chief Justice Renato Corona without requiring a dissertation. I’m thinking, whatever. Granting degrees and distinctions on any person, in my opinion, is in principle at the full discretion of a learning institution. A university’s reputation is built upon the quality of its products and, as such, the UST is at liberty to stake its reputation on Corona who now bears the university’s credentials.
Vitug, being a journalist, made a story out of it. That’s what journalists do, in the same way scorpions can’t help but sting. People are free to decide whether said story makes a compelling case, in the same way we decide whether universities like the UST are not the sort that simply parcel out academic credentials for the heck of it. There really is nothing complicated about that.
The more interesting aspect of this latest buzz making waves among the chattering classes of the Philippine “social media” scene is how much of it has to do with the newest “in” thing making waves, the “social news network” site Rappler.com.
Whatever it is a “social news network” is, the term is already being bandied around. On a post on the site hyping the questionable notion that “online journalism is the future” (a misleading title considering that that article is actually a response to a position the UST has taken not to respond to Vitug’s “report” which was published on Rappler), the term is presented with some air of authority at the foot of the “report”…
Rappler is a social news network, whose journalists have worked for global news organizations and top Filipino news groups. We are proud to be “online journalists.” We promise uncompromised journalism that inspires smart conversations and ignites a thirst for change.
The link in the above snippet leads to the “About” page of Rappler.com. Sifting through all the tired platitudes about the honour of being in the proud practice of journalism yielded not a single trace of clarification around the term “social news network”.
So I might do what I do best which is define the term for the editors of Rappler.
A social news network is an information dissemination system where the information being disseminated is given the label “news”. The system is composed of elements that can be broadly categorised as (1) content creators (2) content consumers, and (3) content contributors. The network domain is bound by the medium which serves as the repository within which information persists. The network is “social” because the elements that form said network are people.
In short, the term “social news network” is nothing new. It is just one instance of what has long been the memetic information exchange network that has existed since the first “ugh” by a caveman was given meaning by another caveman who happened to be within earshot of said utterance.
If Rappler wants to describe itself as such, the only thing missing is in how it defines its domains (which means, defining what binds it) so that it can be considered to be a persistent network with an identity (which really is just a hi-fallutin’ way of saying, Rappler should tell us what it stands for and how it distinguishes itself in the broader social media network in more precise terms). Indeed, the definition above already applies to “social media” at large — an information dissemination superstructure where boundaries have been blurred by the features of the technology platforms that give it life.
So can Rappler.com really distinguish itself using such a term as “social news network”?
In my opinion, it’s overcommitted itself to a notion it hardly understands. Even as I write this, the chattering classes exchanging disembodied 140-character snippets that pass off as “insight” are struggling to wrap their heads around what exactly the term means. I think they struggle because they are trying to backward-engineer the concept to something that fits what Rappler aspires to be. The trouble is, as I already pointed out above, the term “social news network” is essentially a nonsensical term. As the Rappler.com folk like to continuously emphasise, they are a team of “online journalists” — essentially combining a new concept, online, with a dinosaurian one, journalist. Result: convolusion.
Indeed, despite Rappler.com‘s claim to being the new new “thing”, it introduces Vitug in a very traditional way…
The request for a University of Sto Tomas (UST) position was made by Marites Danguilan-Vitug, whose body of work as a journalist stretches back 30 years and is the author of one of the world’s top 10 books on courts and justice systems, “Shadow of Doubt.” She is the founder of Newsbreak, which has operated as a magazine and online for more than a decade until it joined Rappler in December 2011.
That sounds like something my grampa would write, guys.
Credentials work for people who need to earn respect before the fact of earning it. But in a mass communications ecosystem that is rapidly flattening thanks to the very technology that the Rappler.com copywriters fail to demonstrate a savvy understanding of, credentials are becoming less relevant. Rather, the ability to persist as a credible source of insight is now built directly upon the merit and quality of what one says and writes consistently. And that is what “social news networks” ultimately do — turn news and the “reporters” who “report” them to the no more than the commodities that they are today.
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