'What's Trending' Isn't Always What Matters

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CBS's new show will help integrate social networking into the media mainstream. Why this may not be such a good thing.

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Social media has finally come to American television.

CBS has announced the launch of a new web-centric program What's Trending, a live show focused on current events, news and pop culture as seen through the lens of social media. Streamed live through CBS's partnerships with YouTube, Ustream and Livesteam, and billed as "a new kind of news show connecting you to the top stories and people heating up the conversation online around the world," What's Trending looks to put social media front and center as a storytelling tool.

In the viral, social web, cat pictures and Rebecca Black are generally the stories of choice for maximum exposure.

"Unlike some other shows that include social media as an added tool to the content, our content itself is social, and the show is powered by that conversation and our community," host Shira Lazar told GigaOm's Liz Shannon Miller via email. "Everything we do involves digitally connected tools -- from how we discover and source stories to how we curate them on the blog and on-air."

The launch of What's Trending closely follows the unveiling of Al Jazeera English's social media experiment The Stream, which looks to spotlight stories around the globe powered by technology and social media and build a web community around a broadcast program. (I wrote about The Stream for Nieman Journalism Lab in April.) Structurally, the two programs are incredibly similar: Using Storify, a social storytelling software, onsite and Tweetriver in the studio, both programs are bold attempts to effectively integrate commentary and questions from Facebook and Twitter directly into a program's production. While major American networks continue to sequester blase calls for feedback at the end of regular segments, CBS is taking the first step towards successfully harnessing social media in the regular flow of a conventional American television product.

Beyond mere production, though, the differences between Al Jazeera's The Stream and CBS's What's Trending are stark. While The Stream has deliberately sought to avoid the latest viral crazes -- "[T]his is not a show simply about the hottest viral videos or trending stories on the Internet. #8millionBeliebers and #TeamSheen will not figure on The Stream," according to the show's website -- What's Trending embraces the glitzy and glamorous as part of its mission to cover the latest trends in the social space, emphasizing what's viral over what's vital.

Matt Yglesias made a useful distinction for this divergence of focus, presented in the context of scoop journalism. "There are really two ways to break news," Yglesias wrote. "A Type 1 scoop is a story that if you don't break, just won't be broken. A Type 2 scoop is a pure race for priority." When applied to social storytelling, a Type 1 scoop is a story on The Stream: ferreting out untold stories from the corners of the social space, from the "cyber mercenaries" of Cuba to revolutionary humor on the Web. What's Trending falls into the Type 2 category: a story told to garner eyeballs and readership. In the viral, social web, cat pictures and Rebecca Black are generally the stories of choice for maximum exposure.

Is the brand of social media focus at the heart of What's Trending's programming a bad thing? Not necessarily. The show highlights the rise of a type of social news beholden to giving the audience exactly what they want, whether its about a viral protest video from Iran or "The Situation" showing up in the Situation Room on the evening of bin Laden's death, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that: the program bills itself as focusing on the latest news stories through the eyes of the social web, and fulfills that mission efficiently.

But what's trending in the social space isn't necessarily what's vital and what's important, and the universal appeal of cat pictures don't necessarily make LOLcats "news" in any sense of the word. Crowdsourcing and curating on the churn of information pouring onto Twitter and Facebook each day can be an innovative way of storytelling but, despite the teachings of Adam Smith and his successors, crowds aren't always that wise. In the increasingly crowded online news ecosystem, voracious news consumers tend to depend more and more on media outlets not simply as sources of the news, but for a perspective, a voice and a specific brand of editorial judgment on what events matter most -- and pointing to the whims of millions of Twitter users should not be a free pass to publish heartbreaking works of staggering banality.

Of course, not every story published on a website should be expected to have the gravitas of a breaking news story. But as digital journalism based on online memes and trending stories continues to evolve and become integrated with mainstream outlets, it may be worth the time and effort to emphasize the important, the unheard of or the untold stories from the viral space.

Image: host Shira Lazar in the program's new studio/Liz Shannon Miller/GigaOm

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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