Digging through social networks

Mathew Ingram has a Facebook account. He’s not a student looking for someone to share his drunken stories with, or to hook up with his long-lost love from spring break. He’s a journalist who has discovered that social networks are a gigantic resource for tracking down people and creating stories.

“To me, it’s the holy grail,” says Ingram. As a technology writer since 1991, he tries almost every new social network in order to investigate a part of the web which is constantly changing. He has been a columnist with The Globe and Mail since 1994, and started writing online when the newspaper went live in 2000. Before that, he worked for The Financial Times of Canada, and the Alberta Report.

Ingram says social networks are a bit like night clubs. “One week you might like your social network; the next week you say ‘mmmm…no I don’t like that’ and move on to the next,” says Ingram. But unlike most night-club encounters, something substantial may be going on in the conversations – and that’s where Ingram finds stories to tell.

Through the internet, people who may live on opposite sides of the world meet in online communities to talk about a narrow topic of interest. This gives a journalist a tremendous window into a community, potentially slashing the time needed to dig for information about a person or about an organization, group or topic – and extending the reporting field well beyond former sources and friends of friends.

Take the shooting at Dawson College in Montreal in September 2006. Because the shooter belonged to a social network called vampirefreaks.com, journalists were able to access a community with hundreds of thousands of members, get in touch with people who knew him, and view comments, postings and chat rooms. Ingram says that without the internet, a journalist might have been content to interview maybe two Goths found through co-workers or friends. Gothic groups aren’t listed under G in the phonebook.

So, how does a journalist figure out a web of relationships? “Start broad,” says Ingram. “Start with whatever little bits of information you have.” If you simply type a name into Google you might get thousands of results, but the person’s name and high school may yield names and information for your next search. As you keep digging through new layers of information, links and relationships, you will find information that at least will be a starting point for your story. “It becomes easier and easier to find information about people,” Ingram says, “because more and more people live their lives on the internet. Especially young people leave traces in places such as online forums, pictures posted online, articles or emails that have been captured.”

Ingram’s growing reliance on the internet goes well beyond social networks and Google. He also regularly uses proprietary legal and property databases accessed through the Globe’s research library. But for his daily dose of updated digital content, he trusts his highly personalized diet of 300 RSS feeds from blogs, newsfeeds and podcasts. “It’s an early warning system to find out about things before they become headlines,” he says of RSS.

Blogs and forums help him spot trends before they hit magazine covers. He says that the smaller the interest and niche, the easier it is going to be to find a useful source. The host of a blog or forum about something really narrow and rare will probably be an expert on that topic. “That’s what they do,” he says. “That’s all they care about. Their entire life.”

But while the internet has made it easier for journalists to enter social networks, retrieve information and give their stories more context, good journalism doesn’t stop at going to a web site and copying down quotes. “When you’re in a hurry, that’s going to appeal to you,” Ingram says. “But you have no way of knowing if any of it is true.” That’s where the old-fashioned verification process clicks in – beginning with an attempt to contact the source in person This can consist of posting a comment in a chat room that says, “Hey, I’m a reporter, I would like to talk to X, can this person get back to me?” Ingram says. “Then you must go to certain lengths in order to determine if they’re credible.” The net can make that easier, too – by allowing you to search a directory “to find out if the person is actually working where he says he is.”

Last July, an article in The New Yorker included an interview with a man named Essjay, who was described by author Stacy Schiff as “a tenured professor of religion at a private university” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law.” As a subsequent editor’s note confessed, Essjay had been recommended to Schiff by a member of Wikipedia’s management team “because of his respected position within the Wikipedia community,” but in fact, Essjay turned out to be twenty-four-year-old named Ryan Jordan, who has no university degree.

The incident was a major, and well-publicized, blow for the magazine’s renowned fact-checking team. But for Ingram, the story merely highlighted the importance of ordinary research and traditional “knocking on doors” journalism. “Your biggest tool,” he says, “is to be skeptical.”