Facebook and the journalistic impulse

I came across a post in my news feeds on Friday, and didn’t think much of it at first. It was a post by a guy who writes about education at a blog called Square Peg, and it was about Facebook. I was in a hurry, so I moved on and figured I would go back to it. When I re-read it on the weekend, I thought it was fascinating — not so much because of what it’s about (a marketing group that hijacked some university Facebook groups) but because of how it has evolved over the past few days.

It started with a simple post about how it seemed odd that Facebook groups for new university classes — graduating in 2013 — had been set up so quickly for different schools, and how many of them included people with the same names. Blogger Brad Ward thought that smelled fishy, and he was right. It turned out that a marketing company with the creepy name College Prowler had set up some of the groups as a way of promoting its university guides, and a contractor hired by the company had set up the other ones. This came out in a comment on the blog post by the CEO of College Prowler, after the blog had already made the connection.

Part of what was fascinating, if you look at the post, is how it evolved over time as Brad got more information, and how a lot of that information came from other sources. It started with the idea that 500 Facebook groups with similar names didn’t feel right, and then Ward created a Google Doc so that other educational bloggers and Twitter users could stay in touch and share information on what appeared to be a scam. As the research continued, Brad kept updating the blog post, each time using a time-stamp to indicate when the most recent update was posted.

Researchers found connections between the names on the Facebook groups and College Prowler by using Google, LinkedIn and other resources, and added that to the post. In a final update, Ward — who works for Butler University in the admissions department and works with social media — said that he had passed the story and various details on to contacts at several education-related publications, as well as the Chicago Tribune.

Is Ward a journalist? Not really. But he got concerned about an issue, did a lot of research — helped by several other people collaborating and sharing resources — and put a lot of data together, making connections and following leads. Along the way, he updated his report every few hours with more information, and then passed that on to “real” journalists. The issue may not be one that everyone would find earth-shattering, but the way it was done says a lot about what Jeff Jarvis likes to call “networked journalism.”

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