Pittsburgh-area native Chris Shipley hosts Newsgeist, an event takes place around the world four times a year. She was among the first to use the words "social media" and popularized its use. Photo submitted by Newsgeist.

The words “social media” seem so commonplace in our daily lives that we tend to think they’ve always been there. But the concept dates to the early 2000s, or maybe a little earlier. It’s in dispute.

Chris Shipley, who grew up in Scottdale, Westmoreland County, often gets credit for minting the phrase – or at least popularizing it. Now she worries about its future. Based in Redwood, Calif., Shipley has been back in Pittsburgh part-time for the past 18 months working on Sparkt, a social news site with KDKA radio host Marty Griffin.

Shipley was there for the birth of social media, so I wanted to know what she thinks about how it has grown up so far. At this point, we might consider the big social media companies to be in their mid-adolescence or teen-aged years.

“I think social media is going to have a reckoning,” she told me recently. “One of the things that I appreciate about Sparkt is the opportunity to be more thoughtful about certain things. So for example, social media has allowed us to set up soapboxes and shout past people, and sometimes shout at people. We throw our word bombs back and forth without really engaging.”

Many Americans still have a poor idea of how advertisers pay for the news too – and little appreciation for how much work goes into serious reporting. This ignorance contributes to the ideological divides and isolation in the United States, Shipley said.

“I think it’s reinforcing the divisiveness and the content bubbles that we find ourselves in. It’s a rare person who says, ‘You know what, I’m going to switch from my radio station to this other network because I want to hear a different point of view. I want to know how somebody else thinks about this thing.’”

Shipley started out working for her local newspaper in high school, before attending Allegheny College and going to work as a reporter and editor at PC World. Later, she headed to Silicon Valley, and now works as a consultant with Google among her clients.

I asked her how it felt to be there at the start of social media. The words likely turned up before she first uttered them, but she says she never heard them before she first used them.

“I won’t take credit for coining that but I’ll allow that I get some credit for putting it into the lexicon. In 2005 … we did a conference at the University of California, Berkeley called BlogOn and this was what we called a ‘social media event.’ So these things coming together, we called it social media. Maybe others had used that term before us. But that’s how we started pedaling the term.”

Newsgeist Europe took place in Athens this year, bringing together media industry leaders to talk about latest trends. Photo submitted by Newsgeist.

Shipley now runs Newsgeist, an invitation-only event sponsored by Google and the Knight Foundation that focuses on news trends and takes place four times a year in different parts of the world: the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Asia. The event is called an “unconference” in which participants shape the discussion, rather than following traditional conference presentations and panel discussions.

“It is a gathering of about 180 to 200 people working in the news media business, either as journalists, as platform providers, technology providers, advocates and educators, traditional media, digital media. Our goal is to get a really diverse group of voices – across age and rank and experience, across gender, ethnicity, race, across experience, whether it’s technology or practitioners – so that when topics get put on the table, there’s a really strong set of opinions that come around about it.

“We gather people in on the first night, and we spend the evening, asking, ‘What do you want to talk about?’ The ideas all go onto a big board. They all go off to drink, and I take all the Post It notes, and say, ‘This looks like it will work.’ Then we have conversations. And a lot of interesting things come out of the collaborations among attendees.”

After many years in which participants worried about the decline of the news industry, Shipley said she has noticed a recent trend in which content creators seem to be accepting the changes and looking for ways to adapt.

“My speculation is that there’s a recognition that we’re at a new normal. Before, there was a feeling that the world is changing and, ‘How do we stop it from changing?’” she says. “Now, it’s ‘How do we leverage it? How do we take advantage of it? How do we do good and faithful reporting in communities?”

With its “unconference” format, Newsgeist allows participants to set the direction of the event. Shipley says she curates the audience, rather than the program. Photo submitted by Newsgeist.
With its “unconference” format, Newsgeist allows participants to set the direction of the event. Shipley says she curates the audience, rather than the program. Photo submitted by Newsgeist.

Shipley, who has the title chief operating officer for Sparkt, said she believes in the site because it attempts to tell news stories in a more positive and constructive way.

“Sparkt is a digital media company that is dedicated to connecting people to their communities and encouraging them to take action to really make a difference in their communities, to support their neighbors, to improve their environment,” she says.

The content is meant to drive tangible action: “We try to tie every story to some kind of action somebody can do. So it’s not just reading the news passively and thinking, ‘That’s a shame,’ or where you hope that things go better for that person. Instead, it’s, here’s an opportunity to volunteer, to donate or to call your representative.”

Although investment capital does not flow as easily in Pittsburgh as it does in Silicon Valley, Shipley said that financial pressure can act as a crucible that allows only truly viable ideas to surface. She said she also sees a different sort of social capital working in Pittsburgh than in Silicon Valley.

Here she sees “a real generosity of spirit, and a lot of people will listen, and they will do what they can to help. That’s something that happens in the Valley. But it’s done differently here, which is not with a sense of, ‘What’s in it for me?’, but rather, ‘You know, it’s my pleasure to help see Pittsburgh grow.’ It’s a really different mindset.”

To build on that, Sparkt has started experimenting with a “conversation model.” The founders are trying to create online formats where participants can engage in a virtual space that seems a lot more like how they might treat each other in the real world.

“We’re not totally there yet, but we spend a lot of time talking about, how do people talk to each other in real life? You don’t walk into Starbucks and see somebody wearing a tie-dyed shirt and say, ‘Hey, hippie,’ and then run off and buy your coffee. You might not say anything, or you might overhear a conversation and politely interject, right?”

Someone has to figure out a better way for people to behave more civilly on social media, while encountering opposing viewpoints, she said.

“It’s going to take some platforms coming up with new opportunities to create new habits,” she says. “We need to start finding a release valve, so it’s not screaming at each other.”

Andrew Conte writes the On Media column with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com

Andrew Conte

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.