Most often, when I’m talking with folks about online journalism the conversation centers around online publishing. But a quick hit last Friday in The News & Observer’s Under the Dome blog reminds us not to forget about using the Web as a reporting tool. David Ingram used LinkedIn to research a former Wachovia lobbyist, and found a misleading profile of the lobbyist. And, of course, there’s the New York Daily News’ recent use of MySpace to cover the story about Bristol Palin’s pregnancy.
Here’s a quick rundown of some prominent social networking and user-generated content sites and how to research them.
For all of these sites, journalists really need to get their own account and use them for a while to best understand the nuances of how their subjects might be using them. (Does this get in to the realm of participatory journalism? Perhaps. There are probably some good ethical guidelines for journalistic use of these sites, but that’s a topic for another post.)
LinkedIn: This site is a good place to check resumes and to find sources who may have worked with a subject. How people use it: Professionals post their resumes and then request that they be “linked in” to other members of this social networking site. LinkedIn can help reporters see which people may have had tenures that overlapped in an office. You can search by combinations of name, company, industry and date of service. Two down sides: all the data is self-generated so honesty and standardization of spellings, titles and company names can be troublesome; and the best features of the site require a journalist to have a paid subscription.
MySpace: Kids say the darnedest things, and when they do they often say it on MySpace. This seems to be the premier source for missed warning signs anytime someone participates in some sort of anti-social behavior that makes news.
Facebook: Facebook is the love-child of LinkedIn and MySpace — domain to professional adults as well as party guys and girls. Fortunately for journalists, they are often one and the same on Facebook. For example, I recently saw a professional editor call another professional reporter a “douche” on Facebook.
Users of the site are connected both by bi-directional “friendships” as well as geographic, professional and school networks.
The key to this site, though, is that you really have to build an expansive social network of your own in order to use it. Perhaps that’s why Washington Post/CNN media reporter Howard Kurtz has 2,258 “friends.” While some portions of the profiles are public, you can’t see the good stuff unless you “friend” the source.
Great tips can come from Facebook if you understand how people connect to each other there. My former colleague Chris Wilson used Facebook to find a student who was a student at both Columbine High School and Virginia Tech at the times of the shootings on those campuses.
Amazon.com: This popular shopping site does a comprehensive job of tracking its users — their preferences, activities and connections. A simple search on Google for “amazon.com profile LASTNAME” may turn up the public profile of your subject’s activity on Amazon. For example, here’s what Mindy McAdams has been reading recently. Aware Amazon users can limit the information that appears on their public profile, but they have to be proactive about it.
Of course, as with all of these sites, you need to verify that the profile isn’t a spoof. I suspect this is not what the chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company is reading lately. (Knowing how easy or difficult it is to spoof a profile is another reason that journalists should be participating in these social networking and user-generated content sites.)
Google: These folks are also pretty closely watching their users are doing online and are their integration of services can mean that folks who simply have a Gmail account may also have a lot of other interesting things online. If you know someone’s Gmail address, just take the user name (the part before “@gmail.com”) and add it to the end of https://picasaweb.google.com/USERNAME to see whether they have uploaded any photos of themselves or others. Also, be sure to check to see if your subject has uploaded any videos or what he or she might be reading via Reader.google.com.
Other sites to check:
Technorati (Has your subject posted to any blogs, or had any blog posts written about him or her?)
Wikipedia (Is your subject busy manipulating his or her own Wikipedia entry, or an entry about the boss.)