If you are about to start drawing your old-age pension and neither resting between jobs nor yearning for a wallow in a virtual Fleet Street pub, what can the internet do for you?
Quite a lot, actually; though admittedly it helps if you have offspring to open the door to the social media and do a bit of necessary cajoling, and even bullying, when required. It is the modern equivalent of getting your child to programme the video recorder.
So let’s take it for granted that, as a hack of a certain age, you have been completely comfortable for years with email, lap-tops, Google, HD television and personal video recorders and don’t run around complaining there is nothing to watch on television when there is.
What about the social media? Here, there is a definite possibility that the natural response will be to harrumph and say you can’t for a moment see the point at all and have no intention of signing up. Along comes Oliver Snoddy and, without consultation, he signs the aged parent up for LinkedIn.com and continues the spoon-feeding by running up a quick profile and posting a photograph.
Suddenly the sceptical one is linking up with all and sundry and before you know it he has reached the honoured ranks of the 500-plus brigade – and, yes, I really do know who most of them are. You bump into a lot of people in decades of journalism. But that’s it. Professional contacts are one thing. They might open up lucrative opportunities. You never know. But Twitter? What on earth is the point of that telling people which café you are in or revealing to the world that the sun is shining, or that you have the biggest hangover ever. Absolutely no way! Twitter is obviously a waste of time, for those with nothing better to do.
Then the son strikes again. The Twitter account is set up complete with profile without the slightest by-your-leave. Naturally the love affair with Twitter is instantaneous and before too long 3,000 followers will have been amassed; perhaps not in the Fry class but it’s the quality that counts.
The attempt to say something meaningful in 140 characters represents a perpetual challenge. I know you are supposed to keep it shorter than 140 to make it easier for people to reply, but this is outweighed by the sheer bliss of getting to exactly 140 characters – no more, no less. Now the lad senses a pattern here and closes in for the kill and goes for the big one – Facebook.
Further harrumph, no way etc to the accompaniment of assurances that it will be only a matter of time, it’s the largest social network in the world, worth $50 billion blah, blah. Not on this occasion. ‘No’ really does mean ‘No’. Facebook is a step too far for the grumpy old man with no desire to post his holiday snaps or interact with a large proportion of the entire world’s population. Not everyone, after all, wants to voluntarily give up all rights to privacy.
Even if you are not looking for a conventional job these days, the very thought of those who have never reached their full potential because of Facebook boasts about their sexual predations or drunken escapades is enough to make the stoutest heart shudder. So under protest the unsought Facebook profile is removed. This is obviously a minority opinion. If Facebook works for you whatever your age – fair enough.
Engaging with the digital world and being connected to at least some social networks is fine and dandy, but is it merely an illusion? Activity for its own sake? Does any of it cut the mustard? For hobbyists not seeking to make any money, it’s a wonderful outlet; while for journalists of mature years, or freelancers of all ages, the issue is more problematical and the benefits often intangible.
Undoubtedly, the web gives a presence, a voice, albeit it one among many. The better known you are before you hit either LinkedIn or Twitter, the more useful it can be. To those that have shall be given.
What is obviously true is that, for journalists of a certain age, total invisibility can easily amount to professional death. By putting yourself about online, there is at least the chance of a useful tie-up or unexpected commission – and the usual amount of unsought abuse. There are a lot of very rude people out there.
What you are saying is that you are still here, still sentient; interested in being a player and available for writing, interviewing, chairing and appearing on panels. All the usual stuff. If you are suddenly short on a Sunday of some nice quotes for an article that should have been written days ago, emails to a number of relevant LinkedIn connections can produce the goods within hours.
Some are perfectly happy to use Twitter for inconsequential chit-chat and, indeed, that was its initial purpose. It can also be used by journalists to promote articles, ideas, programmes and views about society and has become a news vehicle in its own right, breaking and influencing stories. Twitter, for instance, has the power to undermine the misuse of ‘superinjunctions’ where not even the subject matter of injunction can be revealed.
Admittedly, it would be extremely difficult to produce a cash-flow analysis of the benefits of online activity. Perhaps it is a little too early to know for sure. The most problematical issue is whether it is wise for professional freelance journalists to start writing blogs – giving away for nothing the work you might otherwise sell. Unless you are able to take a long-term view and hope that eventually you will have enough readers to attract advertising, sponsorship or the attentions of publishers, then it is not a brilliant idea.
For the more mature journalist, the social media represent a second chance – and probably the only chance. In an ideal world, it should be possible to combine young and old, new and traditional media. That is why I have set up a new website, Old Media New Media, with my social media mentor and tormentor Oliver Snoddy, digital services director of the New York advertising and marketing consultancy Doremus.
There he will try to tell me that advertising is dead and that influential marketing is the thing, and I will try to convince him that traditional advertising is far from dead and remains the most effective way to launch products and market big corporate brands. Something might come of the inter-generational dialogue. You never know.
Raymond Snoddy reported on media issues for the Financial Times and theTimes, where he was also media editor. He is now a freelance journalist and has presented the BBC’s NewsWatch since 2004. He was awarded an OBE for his services to journalism in 2000.
This is an extract from an essay from Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble, published last week by Abramis.