Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 9, 2009

Working the Social Media Beat

Caroline McCarthy balances covering the richness of social media with public socializing in her own right.

Max Lakin

When the Silicon Alley Insider placed Caroline McCarthy at the 63rd spot in its current list of the one hundred most influential players in the tech game, they said that you were likely to find her at any given party in Silicon Alley, "and if you don't, the party's probably not worth going to." Brash words in speaking about the lithe 24 year-old McCarthy, a CNET blogger in her first employ this side of Princeton.

McCarthy stocks her blog, The Social, with news on the Web's seemingly limitless social media. From the nefarious interworkings of Google's coffers, to the ground plays in the eternal Facebook-Twitter turf war, McCarthy serves as a kind of naturalist surveyor, dispatching from the tech culture badlands.
She's also become something of a proto-celebrity among the type-and-post set; she's a frequent New York media item, appearing within the likes of Gawker and The Observer, and linked therein to sorted wunderkinds like Rex Sorgatz and Tumblr's David Karp.

Photo Courtesy of Caroline McCarthy
"The general rule is that if you aren't actually doing anything productive, people will eventually ignore you. And that's a relief."

Photo Courtesy of Caroline McCarthy

Gelf spoke with McCarthy via e-mail while she was on vacation in central Maine, gearing for a three-month assignment at CNET's San Francisco bureau, undoubtedly so that she can make more West Coast parties complete. Among other topics traipsed, McCarthy talked about being a part of the New York media scene, weighed in on having to claw a niche in a male-heavy industry, and generally demystified the plight of the fameball.

Gelf Magazine:What's your journalism background, and how did you come to write The Social for CNET?

Caroline McCarthy: This is my first real job! I was a senior at Princeton and was getting ready to apply to journalism schools, because I wanted to write for a living (it's what I've always wanted to do) but figured nobody would want to hire me because I had no background in the field. I saw a posting for an entry-level reporting gig at CNET on a job search site, and figured I'd apply on a whim. I couldn't provide them any writing samples—I didn't write for our school newspaper, and I figured they didn't want to see the byline-free writing I'd done for Princeton's proudly un-PC satire magazine—so it was sort of a miracle that they hired me. I spent a year as a general-assignment reporter, and then it became evident that social networking was a big enough sector of digital innovation that we should have a reporter covering it full-time. So that's how that all happened.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think you might be doing if blogging weren't as sexy as it's turned out?

Caroline McCarthy: Well, to be fair, blogging isn't (always) sexy. There are lots of late nights spent hunched over keyboards, time spent yelling at people over the phone, and answering cranky e-mails from angry readers. But I love it. It's also spoiled me rotten because it's such a fun, fast-moving, creative field where you encounter so many crazy and fascinating personalities. I don't think you could stick me in a cube and have me working on Excel spreadsheets from 9-5. I'd rather go back to my high school job behind the counter at an ice cream store. Actually, considering that meant free coffee and sundaes, it was actually a pretty appealing gig.
Gelf Magazine:: So we're talking about overlooked women in media, but you hardly appear to be overlooked; you've got a seizable readership with a built-in audience through CNET, and your Twitter followers can probably occupy most of Micronesia if they organized properly. Do you consider yourself overlooked then?

Caroline McCarthy: Being a female technology reporter, or really any kind of business reporter, is a position in which you can very much feel both overlooked and overexposed at the same time. Not to generalize, but you're writing about men far more than you're writing about women, and you also tend to have a reader base that skews male (I would estimate that the readers who send me feedback e-mails are 80 to 85 percent male). That's just reality.
So in the whole Silicon Valley scene, it's easy to stand out from the crowd simply because you're female, but the women who get much of the attention are often the ones who are hosting podcasts or TV shows and have really branded themselves well as "geek girls" (and have way more Twitter followers than I ever will). I've hosted video segments for CNET and I occasionally do TV news hits, and it's a blast, but writing's where my real interests lie, and I'm not entirely comfortable with having the "geek girl" branding applied to myself. Don't get me wrong: there are some very hard-working women who do a great job talking on TV or Web video about the latest games and gadgets, and I really respect the fact that they have had to do a lot to prove their credibility in an extremely male-dominated industry that dismissed many of them at first as pretty faces, but that's just not for me. I'm the sneakers-and-hoodie type. Being "on" all the time isn't my thing.
Gelf Magazine: For posterity's sake, how many social networking sites do you count yourself among? Which do you genuinely enjoy, as opposed to say, using because you kind of have to?

Caroline McCarthy: Fewer than you'd think. Oftentimes I'll have an account on a social-networking site simply because I had to be familiar with it for work. I use Facebook and Twitter, and then I have a personal blog (that characteristic is a stretch—it's really just a bunch of photos and quotes) hosted on Tumblr. After that I start to drop off. I'm a big Foursquare user. I have a Flickr account that I don't use regularly. Most of the social-networking sites that I really enjoy are ones where, in addition to connecting with other people, you're able to chronicle or log something for yourself in a way that you couldn't do before the Web. I use Goodreads to log books I've been reading and Dopplr to keep tabs on present and future travel.

Gelf Magazine: As a woman in the media, as it were, do you feel any special burden to show up for women in general?

Caroline McCarthy: I don't like to play the gender card. But I absolutely think there's extra scrutiny given to women in the media who report on business or technology: if we get anything wrong, we're "dumb," or if we're too opinionated about something, we're "bitchy." I don't try to "show up" as part of some sort of shadowy feminist agenda, but I'm aware that if I'm not on my toes, there's some ugly sexism that can bubble to the surface.
Gelf Magazine: You've been lopped into the niche-celebrity "fameball" school with a few other media colleagues your age, gender notwithstanding; Jakob Lodwick, Julia Allison (whom we spoke with a few months back), Charles Forman, to name a choice few. A Details piece from last fall bears this out . What's your opinion on this kind of branding?
Caroline McCarthy: Well, there was a lot of generalization in the Details piece, and I don't blame anyone it's an entertainment magazine, not a news publication. But I think the "fameball" branding comes when personality supercedes actual accomplishment. And it was easy to apply it to a lot of these guys—young, attractive entrepreneurs, many of whom were running pre-revenue companies, and many of whom were experiencing media attention for the first time in their lives. You're getting much less of that these days: I think after a few well-publicized incidents, this crowd has gotten much more conscious about what they put out there, either through media appearances or on their personal blogs and Twitter accounts. The economic climate has spurred a lot of them to hunker down and really innovate, too. I think the general rule is that if you aren't actually doing anything productive, people will eventually ignore you. And that's a relief.
Gelf Magazine: What do you think drives them? And more important, why do you think people care—not in so much as the products they create, because, hey, Facebook changed peoples' lives—but more in their personal exploits?

Caroline McCarthy: There always have and always will be attention-seekers, and there have always been media-friendly eccentrics who have expertly crafted how the public sees them. But when it comes to the young entrepreneurs and media figures who have been lumped into the "fameball" set, the funny part is that generally their personal exploits aren't even that interesting. Ben Mezrich recently wrote a rather sensational book, "The Accidental Billionaires," which is about the founding of Facebook, and you can tell he really had to stretch to make Mark Zuckerberg's rise to fame intriguing in the celebrity-gossip sense.
And I really don't think people care as much about figures in the digital-media industry as some gossip bloggers once thought they would. As a rule I don't post about my dating life on Twitter or my blog. Does that mean it's nonexistent? No (At least that's what I tell myself). Does anyone ever ask me about it? Unless they already know me, the answer tends to be no. They simply don't care. I tend to get the most responses on Twitter or Facebook when I'm posting about buying a new pair of running shoes or voicing an opinion on a trend in the industry. I've noticed that there really isn't much interest in our personal lives beyond anecdotal details, unless we really foist our personal lives upon readers—and in that case, the attention and interest is generally negative.

Gelf Magazine: Back to blogging, you focus on social networks and their infinite and terrible possibilities. Are there any developments you can let Gelf readers in on?

Caroline McCarthy: There are way too many travel start-ups out there, but I'm very impressed with a brand-new one called Everlater. It's basically an online travel scrapbook and itinerary generator, and they had the press opportunity of a lifetime when JetBlue announced their "all-you-can-jet" pass last month and Everlater invited users to share their travel ideas for a month of unlimited flying. It's also built in some of the most seamless implementations of other social media sites' application program interfaces (APIs) that I've seen yet—bringing in photos from Flickr, logging in through Facebook Connect, et cetera. A brand new site with a lot to work on, but I give a thumbs-up to the work that's been done so far on it.
A lot of people are also talking about something called augmented reality. I won't go into depth about it since there's so much to say, but I'll say that it's making me itch to trade in my perfectly functional iPhone 3G for a newer 3GS, and I'm a cheapskate.

Gelf Magazine: Something we're following at Gelf is the decline of the print industry and tech's role in sounding the death knell. What do you think about the relationship, and what would you say traditional media needs to do to save itself?

Caroline McCarthy: There's so much debate over the fate of mainstream media (a term which is itself sort of growing obsolete), and most of the time, I don't participate—I'm not qualified, and even if I were, so much of it is back-and-forth bloviating with no real conclusions. I have very little sentimental attachment to print media; I've never had anything published in print, only on the Web, and I can't remember ever once buying a newspaper. Maybe I never have. I also haven't been a journalist for long enough to have closely followed just how badly bloated the media industry was becoming, and how severely many major outlets were mismanaged before the digital age started to chip away at them.

That said, I'm willing to conclude that there's a lot of hysteria surrounding the "death of print," in part because the "new media" models that have been getting the most attention involve reporting that's underpaid at best and unpaid or scrapped at worst, and I understand the anxiety of longtime media professionals who see their industry as basically hijacked by pirates (though I don't always agree with them). But, as a digital journalist, do I feel any guilt about being part of the medium that's threatening such a longstanding and respected tradition of print journalism? No. This is evolution, not destruction, and it will take some time to find its footing.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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- Media
- posted on Sep 10, 09
Terrence Cheek

Thank you Gelf for interviewing Caroline McCarthy, that was an amazing interview read Caroline is the best and I love reading her thought's.

Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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