Amanda Hirsch

Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.

If you meet Andy Carvin, it’s almost certain that he’d tweet about it — and for a brief moment, the 11,000+ people who follow him on Twitter would know your name. He might also post photos of you on Flickr, write about you on his blog and interview you for Rocketboom — or just live-stream an interview with you from his phone. In short, Andy is someone who lives online, and when you enter his orbit, you live online, too.

As is fitting for a citizen of the Internet — someone Washingtonian recently named a “Tech Titan,” alongside the likes of Steve Case and Ted Leonsis — Andy’s bio is readily available on Wikipedia. I won’t regurgitate that information here — I’ll just say that this is a guy who “got” the Web right off the bat, and has been a leader and advocate for using the Internet in a socially responsible, democratic way since the early ’90s. These days, Andy’s on the payroll at NPR, which is how I met him, public media being the intimate world that it is. Read on for his perspectives on how filmmakers should be using the Web, especially so-called “social media,” and why being friends with someone online doesn’t necessarily mean you’d invite them to your bar mitzvah.

Amanda Hirsch: You’re a “social media strategist” for NPR. Tell us what that means.

Andy Carvin

Andy Carvin: Well, let’s start with the meaning of social media. Basically, social media encompasses the universe of digital tools that foster interaction, content sharing and knowledge creation. In the early days of the Web, it was largely a one-way medium — you’d read, watch or listen to content but couldn’t easily create it or participate in a dialogue. Over time, the tools improved as the Internet became more ubiquitous. Now most websites have significant social media elements — blogs, wikis, user-generated content, etc. Some people refer to this as Web 2.0, but in many ways, it’s just what the Web is today.

As social media strategist, my job is to develop ways for NPR to engage the public — and vice versa — as a way to expand and strengthen our journalism. Public radio has always had a strong community of listeners, but we didn’t have the tools available for them to interact with us, and each other. Social media is changing all of that; “listeners” no longer have to be passive.

Amanda: Most media companies, and many media makers, have realized that having a presence on Twitter and Facebook is important to marketing their projects and building an audience. But my impression is that people want to connect with people in these spaces, not companies or projects. If the information posted feels generic or like it’s been run through a committee, users might not trust it, or find it interesting. Do you agree?

If so, does this mean that filmmakers who want to promote their work effectively online needs to be willing to share enough personal information to feel “real” and interest people in their work? Can you have an effective public persona on social networks that is devoid of truly personal information?

Andy: One of the most important qualities of the social media space is authenticity. Because the Internet makes it so easy for individuals to interact with each other directly, people grow weary of interacting with anonymous entities with no sense of humanity behind them. People want to know who’s working behind the scenes, what makes them tick, what their decision-making processes are like. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to report on what you’ve had for breakfast every morning, though. Online communities like Facebook and Twitter don’t want to see you putting up an artificial facade. By getting a feel for who you are, those communities can understand your editorial and production decisions better.

Amanda: I remember when you asked your Twitter followers to suggest names for your soon-to-be-born baby. Do you consider everyone who follows you on Twitter and Facebook, and on your blog, a “friend”? If not, what is your motivation for sharing personal information online?

Andy: I think the word “friend” shouldn’t be taken too literally. In many cases, it simply means a contact. In other cases, a “friend” may just be a fan of yours. And in some cases, sure, online “friends” actually are your friends. I’m very comfortable putting out questions or requests for comments to a wide group of people, because maybe someone will come up with an angle I haven’t considered, or suggest something that’s totally new to me. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll expect to see all of these people at family bar mitzvahs and the like. It’s really all about being open to new ideas, even exposing yourself to criticism, in the hopes of gaining something constructive out of it.

Amanda: You were recently at Silverdocs. Any impressions of how folks at the festival were (or were not) using social media? If you could have given a keynote — what would you have wanted to say to that audience?

Andy: I was only there for one session — The Future of Public Media. The person who introduced the session asked everyone to turn off their mobile devices since there was “no reason” to be soliciting questions from the outside. Then Pat Aufderheide of American University, one of the leaders of the session, promptly told everyone to turn their phones back on and start tweeting. It was a rather telling moment.

The week before Silverdocs, I was at a documentary makers conference in Massachusetts (editor’s note: this was the Making Media Now conference), and spent a couple of days there. I definitely felt that there was a divide between those filmmakers who were actively using social media to develop and promote their works, and those who were resistant to it. It’s not easy to change the way you do your business, particularly when you’re used to the “audience” being merely an audience. But a growing portion of that audience no longer expects to sit by passively and wait for you to release your film. There are many people out there who want to be engaged early and often. Don’t pass them up, because they can be your greatest advocates, and at times, even fixers for you. You need to embrace your inner community organizer and reach out to these people, especially when they reach out to you.

Amanda: What would you recommend for documentary filmmakers interested in getting a better feel for social media? Where should they start? Who should they read/follow? Any recommended resources?

Andy: For one thing, don’t wait until you’re done with your film to start exploring social media. The public can be an advocate for your work; they can help you fill in the blanks or find resources you might not know about. Pay attention to what filmmakers like Robert Greenwald and Sandi DuBowski do. If you observe how they use social media tools, you’ll get a feel for the possibilities of what can happen before, during and after a film is produced. Robert uses social media to get public input and generate buzz from pre-production onward. He uses Twitter to tell stories about his subjects and the documentary-making process, and releases short Web videos as he’s still shooting and editing. Doing this helps build an audience for your film, because they have a vested interest in its success.

Sandi has done a remarkable job organizing real-world convenings related to his films. Social media plays a part in it, but the emphasis is on the human interactions — getting people talking about topics they’re not used to talking about publicly, and giving them a safe space to hash it out. I recently heard him tell a story about how he found the perfect shot to capture the skyline of Old Jerusalem simply by asking people for suggestions on Facebook. It may not seem like a sexy example of how to use social media, but it’s a totally pragmatic one that pays off dividends when you’re ready with your final cut.

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.