On Wednesday Night, one of today’s preeminent figures in social media, Chris Hughes, spoke at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum. Hughes has accomplished more before reaching the age of 30 than most aspire to in a lifelong career—and according to him, he’s nowhere near finished.
In 2004, Hughes co-founded Facebook as a sophomore at Harvard University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2006. He went on to serve as the coordinator for President Obama’s groundbreaking online organizing efforts in the 2008 campaign. In 2010, he created Jumo, a social network for non-profit organizations, and this March, he became the owner and Editor-in-Chief of the print and online magazine, The New Republic.
Hughes’ talk, “The Changing Media Landscape: How Social Media is Transforming News and Information”, aimed to explain how the development of the Internet over the past two decades has impacted the nature of journalism as we now understand it, based on his own experience in the industries.
He described the transition in the context of two “waves” of revolution in the Internet. The first took place around the year 2000 with the birth and growth of blogs. Hughes explained that, when people acquired an open forum to join the news community on an individual level, reporting on topics of their choice and sharing their own opinions with anyone who would read them, the culture of journalism fundamentally changed. One no longer required a professional position at a newspaper or magazine to contribute to the news landscape in his community or voice his thoughts on pressing issues.
With this development over the past decade, Hughes argued that there has been an inversion in the way that journalists break into their careers; rather than new writers seeking out entry-level positions at big-name newspapers to add prestige to their résumés, news sources will look for writers and bloggers who already have their own online followings, as a way to enhance the newspaper’s offerings. As an example, Hughes cited Nate Silver, the creator of the political polling data site FiveThirtyEight.com who was hired by The New York Times to strengthen the publication’s coverage of elections.
The second stage Hughes discussed was one closely related to the beginnings of his own career: the socialization of the Internet. With the prevalence of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and others, the Internet is increasingly used as a tool for interpersonal and professional connections and communication. The Internet is becoming not only a place to find informative content, but also a facilitator of human interaction.
At the head table prior to his talk, Hughes also praised the networking website LinkedIn. He argued that, in every Internet interaction, it’s crucial that information be viewed in the correct context. He has found in his own experience with hiring that the networking aspect of LinkedIn provides him with integral context and background to supplement a potential employee’s résumé.
In response to a question from the audience about the international role of social media, Hughes also addressed the role that the Internet and social networks can and have played in political movements and revolutions around the world, most notably in the Arab Spring. Hughes emphasized that social media does not necessarily promote democracy and that we must take a nuanced view when evaluating its ability to do so. Giving the example of the burgeoning neo-Nazi party in Greece, Golden Dawn, Hughes pointed out that reactionary and tyrannical groups have the same capacity to utilize the organizing power of social networks as do well-intentioned and inspiring revolutions for freedom.
At a moment in time in which the Internet and social networks are an inextricable part of every college student’s life, particularly at a school like Claremont McKenna where students are highly motivated to build influential careers, Hughes’ talk offered an enriching and inspiring perspective on the present and future personalities of journalism and the Internet. An approachable and outlandishly accomplished man, Chris Hughes is someone that every CMCer can look to for ideas as we figure out how to make our own impact on the world.