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Whom do you trust?

Citizens of world who once trusted their government and mass media news sources, now turn to each other for reliable guidance about products and lifestyles. Increasingly, those people turn to the Internet and, specifically, to social media for advice from “People like me.”

Though it may not be as “expert” as such advice once was, a recent survey shows that social media – far and above traditional radio, TV and news media – that advice is sought after and used. Blogs and other forms of social media are, today, the source of “word-of-mouth” advice once sought over the backyard fence.

The GlobalWebIndex “Annual Report 2011,” which includes data from Trendstream and Lightspeed Research, outlines a shift in consumer behavior on social media. According to the report, usage is shifting to focus on distributing content rather than creating it.

Social media users disseminate and share professionally created content more often on microblogs, social networks and video-sharing platforms. Nearly half those surveyed were more likely, by last autumn, to trust social networks than they were a year earlier; three-in-eight more likely to trust blogs. Trust in traditional media grew, in that same period by only one-in-eight surveyed.

Admittedly, many of those SMers and bloggers were sharing professional content as the basis or alongside their personal recommendations. But even if they were not the primary source of information, these “common-man journalists” were clearly usurping mass media’s traditional role as gatekeepers – determining which among literally millions of possibilities are worthy of distribution – and as opinion leaders.

What does this augur for the future of social media? Perhaps not as much as seems apparent on the surface.

One reason traditional sources of news, opinion and product/service evaluation have lingered in the face of the online juggernaut is their huge, expertise and budget coffers. In fact Edelman’s “Trust Barometer” report for 2011 shows, for the second year in a row, an apparent decline in trust of a “person like me” (from 47% in 2009 to 43% in 2011) and a concomitant rise in trust for experts – and even significant rises in government, academic, financial and industry analysts who form the core of traditional media information sourcing.

These are small changes, but a reflection, perhaps, that reports of the death of mass media may be a bit primitive. Collection, evaluation and dissemination of information on the primary level requires travel, experienced journalists and corporate intelligences, and the respected (if depleted) channels of mass distribution.

In short, an unshaven 20-something in pajamas can’t compete with NBC and Gallup at unearthing worthwhile gems of information … no matter how effective that 20-something might be in the secondary distribution and evaluation of the primary message.

Sallie Burnett
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