The First, Rough Hashtag of History

Social media networks are in a rush to get into the events business. Breaking news events, that is. The latest to take the plunge is Instagram, which announced a pair of updates Tuesday designed to make it easier for users to follow events as they unfold in real time through images uploaded to the platform.

Periscope_screenshotThe first update is an overhaul of Facebook-owned site’s Explore tab to allow users to pull of images taken at a specific place or under a particular hashtag. The other is a powerful new search function that lets users search by hashtag or location.

“If you’re a journalist and you want to see live photos happening at any location in our system, you can simply type in the location and up comes the page,” Instagram CEO and cofounder Kevin Systrom told the Wall Street Journal.

The Instagram moves come on the heels of Twitter’s unveiling of Project Lightning, a new feature also designed to make it easier for users to follow breaking news events as they unfold. A new Project Lightning button in the Twitter app will call up eight to 12 human-curated feeds, with an emphasis on images and videos, each focused on a particular breaking event. It also follows the launch of YouTube Newswire, a new service from the Google-owned video site that will provide news organizations with curated feeds of verified videos taken by eyewitnesses to breaking news events.

And, though all of those new services and features must have been in the works for months given the amount of coding and testing they would have required, they all follow the appearance earlier this year of Periscope and Meerkat, which put a spotlight on the growing importance of live and real-time content on the web.

The rush to provide breaking-event discovery and curation tools also reflects an accelerating shift in emphasis among social media platforms from the “social” side of the equation to the “media side.” All of the new curation tools are designed to focus attention of the information value of the content being published on those platforms, more than on the individual or organization doing the publishing. From protocol-based networks of peers, social media apps are rapidly evolving into content-based broadcast platforms.

Call it the triumph of the hashtag over the social graph.

That evolution poses a complex challenge to traditional broadcasters and news organizations. On the one hand it represents a validation of the broadcast model, both as a mode of communication and as a business model. While Instagram, Twitter and YouTube have not yet discussed their business models for the new tools in detail, they’re clearly meant to create new, monetizable use cases for those platforms.

On the other hand, curated feeds from breaking news events obviously represent new competition for traditional news organizations, from publishers operating under a very different cost structure.

“People are hungry for what’s happening right now in the world,” Instagram’s Systrom told the Journal. “All of us in social media and regular media, we’re all competing for the same thing, which is this gap between something happening in the world and you knowing about it.”

On still another hand (if you happen to have a spare), the new social discovery and curation tools are likely to prove a boon to professional journalists, expanding their access, lowering costs and enabling real-time engagement with their audiences. YouTube Newswire, after all, is intended to make it easier for news organizations to incorporate found video into their broadcasts and digital platforms. As discussed in a previous post, Twitter’s Project Lightning is clearly meant to be an enterprise-friendly application. NBC’s new Nightly News anchor Lester Holt has talked about incorporating Periscope and other digital tools into the news gathering process as well as the broadcast.

What you have, then, are traditional media companies trying to get more social, even as social media companies get more traditional.