Social Media is Performative — We Need to Work in a Space that is Informative

David Cohn
3 min readNov 5, 2019

Social media is performative — we need to be informative.

By now, it’s an old joke. Journalists on Twitter, tweeting media analysis for an audience of other journalists on Twitter.

#NotAllJournalists are guilty of this phenomenon. And it’s not all the time. But it is a real phenomenon. This is a natural result of the platforms we use as journalists to engage our audience.

The nature of Twitter, Facebook and other social media is performative.

We are performing for our audience in the hopes of going viral. We are performing for other journalists in the hopes of professional recognition. It’s all empty calories and at the expense of actually serving our audience.

Even when you’re trying to be informative on a platform like Twitter, the value of your content is weighed in ReTweets and Likes. Responses aren’t directly to you, but are themselves a performance or callout. Conversation becomes a signal to the world of one’s agreement or disagreement. Trolling is an art that only works with an audience to perform for.

The broad movement into membership, powered by paywalls, newsletters, podcasting and texting, is in large part because the journalism industry woke up to the fact that platforms like Twitter are fundamentally performative and we need to get back to the basics of serving our audience.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t have positive aspects. But the pendulum has swung too far. It’s time to get back to our roots, to serve our customers, and that means squaring up and focusing on them and finding spaces, platforms and products that enable us to do this. We will find that the BEST parts of “social media,” like listening to our audience are easy to do in spaces that are informative and not performative.

It’s not just about authenticity, although that’s obviously a part of it. Instead, it’s about operating in spaces where information is of value and seeing how that impacts the editorial process in a positive way.

Subtext is Informative

We are seeing this first hand with Subtext. Upon first glance a lot of people think it’s “a private Twitter.” And if that helps wrap your head around it to start, great. But after a few texts to their audience, reporters find it brings out the best of their editorial work. There’s no distraction, no #TrendingHashtag to jump on, and they can focus on the needs of their audience. To be blunt, reporters post better content on Subtext than they do on Twitter, because they are able to focus more on the audience.

The quality of the feedback/responses from the audience improves as well, creating a feedback cycle that has resulted in the audience playing a role in helping our reporters discover new sources and information critical to their reporting.

On Subtext readers can respond to the hosts, but those responses go ONLY to the reporter. What’s the point of trolling if nobody else can see it? That’s doubly the case for Subtext campaigns that have a subscription fee. Nobody is paying money to troll a reporter in private. Without the circus of Twitter going on in the background, audience members send nothing but signal to the reporters.

Conversely — the reporters aren’t worried about the potential audience of THE ENTIRE WORLD. They care about the specific audience they are cultivating on Subtext. It’s an audience they hear from. An audience they know and serve. And often the audience who show they most value the work through their monthly payments. In short, their incentives are more aligned on a platform like Subtext than they are on Twitter. It’s because these incentives are aligned that a reporter can charge for the service.

Figure out how to align your incentives with your audiences’ desire and what they need to know. It might mean fundamentally re-thinking what platforms and products you use. But it’s key to navigating the next few years.

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