My very first day working for the Daily Tar Heel, I was assigned a late story, meaning I covered a meeting and wrote the article afterward, leaving at about 11:30 p.m. I of course had a five page paper due the next day, and my then roommate had gone to bed at 9 (like she did every night). So I took my computer and tried to study in the kitchen. And I gave in, I checked Facebook.
In my news feed, I was greeted by three statuses: "I can't believe Kanye did that! I love Taylor Swift!" "What the hell, Kanye?" and my personal favorite, "TEAM SWIFT."
I don't have a TV, so I had no idea what was going on. I went to Google and typed "Kanye" and "Taylor Swift" but it yielded no news results. So I went back to my Facebook. About six more similar statuses. Tried Google again. Still no information. I went back to Facebook and a friend had posted "Um. So apparently Kanye West did something? What happened exactly?"
And then I got my explanation. Several of her friends posted answers and told me brief, two sentence versions of what happens. West interrupted Swift in the middle of her acceptance to state that he thought Beyonce deserved to win. That was all I needed.
So where did that leave me? Obviously, if there was some news that I wanted about something that had just happened, newspapers were going to fail me. But even internet news sites had failed me! Blogs weren't available yet! The only way I could get the news was through Facebook. Through social networking.
More recently, Twitter has saved my butt. The only reason I knew about my 9 a.m. class being canceled due to snow is because I logged into Twitter and my editor had posted that classes before 10 a.m. were canceled. I probably wouldn't have checked my email again until after I had gone to Caldwell Hall that morning only to find it closed.
So this raised the question: the editor-in-chief posted on his personal Twitter that I didn't have to wake up for philosophy. Is this credible?
On the one hand, it's a person. It's not a news source. He could just be messing with us, or he could have gotten the wrong message. His personal Twitter is not held accountable. On the other hand, he's a professional journalist. So if he posts something on his personal Twitter, is it reliable? Should personal Twitters be held to the same standards as professional newspapers?
I checked my email. He told the truth.
There is an abundance of news resources all over Facebook and even more on Twitter. You can follow the Twitters of Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, local political blogs like OrangePolitics, or of course, my favorite news source about the city of Chapel Hill, The Daily Tar Heel.
I consider political news from OP and the DTH pretty reliable. But news straight from the horse's Twitter? I can't trust it.
Take Kleinschmidt. On his Twitter, he posted the following update before the snow: "Just declared a state of emergency 9p tonight until 9a Sunday. Discouraging unnecessary travel during that time."
Kleinschmidt said he had just declared the state of emergency. But in fact, he had not. He had prepared a proclamation, but never actually declared it.
Political news straight from the Mayor's Twitter isn't even reliable.
So what social networking sites can you use and trust to use information to make decisions?
Trust the feeds of newspapers as much as you trust the paper copy, however much or little that means to you. You can't trust personal Twitters or Facebooks as fact, no matter whose they are.
Social networking has the potential to hold a great deal of information, however. Tweets and updates, if they are from important and influential people, such as the Mayor, need to be fact checked as rigorously as newspapers are. If they are, they have have the potential to reach an untapped news audience, and give people a reliable source for information. Many social networking sites already are reliable. But it's never really going to be possible to make a sweeping generalization about the reliability of social news unless there is a standard, and currently, there's not one for being a news source on Twitter.