‘There are no social media experts’: Interview with Knight Innovator Alex de Carvalho

When I met Alex de Carvalho for an interview, he looked tired but also glowing. He was still beaming from organizing and hosting Social Media Day South Florida, an event he created which gathered over 400 enthusiasts and speakers to share best practices and new ideas. The Brazilian/Finnish entrepeneur, speaker and blogger creates spaces for people to connect: he founded the Social Media Club South FloridaBar­CampIgnite, and he is also a founding member of Refresh Miami.

Currently, Alex is the Knight Foundation Innovator in Residence at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University. In this position, he works with students and faculty to develop innovation programs and use digital technology to address real world issues. He has also hosted events such as the Media Party and the Scripps international Innovator’s Cup.

Previously, he launched various Internet startups in U.S. and Europe, he was a strategy consultant, and an instructor at the University of Miami’s School of Communications. He also co-authored “Securing the Clicks: Network Security in the Age of Social Media.

He is friendly and willing to help (agreeing to this interview showcases it). I was curious about his motivations to start community building, his current projects as Knight Innovator and why he thinks social media experts do not exist. What follows is our conversation, edited for content and space.

It seems the common element for all of these things you do is networking: get people from different locations and bring them together. Is that your purpose?

Yes, you could say that. I started blogging about 12 years ago. I was living in Paris and by blogging I met these incredible people, these other bloggers who became friends and I started to go to their events. They had meet ups… I started going to Internet conferences, I met a lot of startup companies and I fell in love with this whole new way of meeting people which was actually by blogging. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, it was just by blogging and figuring out, ‘oh there is an event, let me meet these new people who are bloggers.’

What were the topics that you were blogging about?

I had two blogs: I had my own personal blog which I still have which was more about my thoughts on tech. I do not blog so often anymore but I used to blog a couple of times a week. Then I also had another blog, which was the “Year of Brazil in France.” Every year, France honors a different country and that year (2005) they were honoring Brazil… I am Brazilian, I was like ‘wow, I should blog about what is going on!’ There were a bunch of events, singers, artists and because I was blogging about it, my blog became more popular than the official site. The reason is that the official site was just listing all of the events. If you are French, you did not know what was good or not. So I was blogging about the good events that I had gone to and that I took photos of, or the ones that I would recommend. That’s why my blog had more traffic than the official site for the year in Brazil in France; that also meant that the bloggers in Paris got to know me as the Brazilian blogger. They loved it and … I met a lot of people and made many friends in that French blog and startup community.

When I came to Miami I had already lived here previously for 10 years… Meeting people in Miami was very different than the way you meet people than in Paris and London. In Paris and London you have dinner parties, you have many more conversations. Here, when you go out at night, the music is so loud you can’t speak to anyone. When you go out in South Beach, it’s all about the car you drive, whether you have a Rolex, spending 25 dollars for a drink, and then you can’t even speak to anyone because its so loud! It’s very difficult. So coming here I wanted to meet people in a more cultural way, in a more intellectual way, around topics of shared interest, which is why I cofounded RefreshMiami. I did that for 4 years and then I created Social Media Club South Florida and I started creating these events: BarCamp, Ignite, and Social Media Day. These were ways of bringing people together in a new, relevant, high value way where you can actually speak to intelligent people and where the music was not loud so people could understand what you were up to.

Why the interest in technology? Did you grow up interested in that?

I went to Business school and then I did an MBA to work in marketing but I always felt that there is something wrong with marketing. For example, there is product manager at Crest and there is product manager at Colgate. Crest and Colgate are basically equivalent products. There is no difference, and yet these two product managers are fighting for market share, and their entire bonus and salary depends on ‘how can I get more market share than my competitor?’ So how do they do it? They do it through marketing messages, they do it by spending money, photoshopping stuff, doing press releases. It all seems like a lie, and it all seem very futile. Why would I go to school to an MBA and work for Colgate or Crest? Why should I sell this suntan lotion and not that one? It all seems to me very pointless. There had to be a better way. That better way is social media.

After my MBA I was a management consultant doing business strategy and then I created a startup in 1999 about email marketing. I started creating permission-based marketing where people opted-in to get your messages because they were interested in what you were selling. I learned about social media where you are blogging about your interest; if I like this coffee then I am going to write something about the coffee because I like that coffee. If you follow my blog you’ll say ‘he is Brazilian, he likes coffee, let me try it out.’ It seems like much more authentic way for a brand to connect with people than some kind of a photoshopped thing with a Colombian coffee producer with a donkey that does not exist…

That’s s why I fell in love with social media. It’s a more authentic way to talk to people.

Companies still do it, they push the message.

Of course, you have to because there is still TV and magazines, so you still have to do traditional advertising. Now with social media, you should also be on Facebook and Twitter. You should be on Pinterest, you should be trying creative things.

Talking about social media and the people who do social media for these brands, they are so-called experts. What is your perception on this? Are there any social media experts?

No, I don’t believe there are any social media experts, especially because social media has only been around for 10-15 years. By social media I mean blogging and things like Facebook and Twitter and such. People would say ‘yeah social media existed through the bulletin boards, aol,’ ok, whatever, I am talking about modern social media. It’s too young. It’s not like accounting that has existed for hundreds of years and traditional marketing which has existed for 50, 60-70 years, where there is a body of knowledge.

In social media you don’t have that yet because it’s new and the platforms themselves are new. The platforms are changing all the time…There is no way to know everything about Facebook because Facebook even right now is testing something new in a market you are not in. They might roll it out into your market but all of a sudden you were an expert and now you are no longer because it’s new. There are too many platforms and you can’t know everything about all the platforms.

But also social media management requires a lot of skills… We are talking about doing computer based technical things to being in front of people and speaking at an event, to doing strategy, to managing graphic artists, to maybe even managing a development team, to creating an app. So look at all these different kinds of skills, it’s very hard for one person to have all those skills. So that is why I say there are no experts.

During Social Media Day there was a lot of discussion about doing effective social media strategies. The book you co-wrote Securing the Clicks was more about the security aspect that should be addressed. Do you think companies are forgetting that?

Yeah, I think so. I think companies are not paying attention to security and the security really should be looked at in very holistic fashion. All aspects of risks for business from computer based network security, to reputation risks, to intellectual capital to copyrights… Creating policies for companies is important so employees know what to do and what not to do on social media.

During Social Media you were with a Red Cross representative talking about a new project. What is the project that all about? Is there some gap in disaster relief and social media?

There is a gap of knowledge about what goes on in digital and social media about what goes on in a disaster. First responders do not have that knowledge. They have not ever needed to because they get calls from 911 and 311. They are prepared for disaster… but they are not prepared for the “explosion” of social media during and after disasters.

It’s interesting because digital humanitarians are there and they will always be there. If something happens in Nepal, they are going to help,;if something happens in Haiti… People from around the world crowdsource online, do mapping projects, NGO identifying, people finders, and so on. People find projects and different things they can do online to help first responders. But the first responders are not always aware of these things… They are not in social media and they do not know how to get their official messages out.

When there is a disaster there are a lot of rumors and photoshopped photos and things that are false, which go viral… The Red Cross has real information, like ‘here are where the shelters are,’ ‘there is flooding over there’ and those messages are not getting out because people online are still paying attention to celebrities like Justin Bieber… I think cities can do a lot to prepare digitally so that when there is a disaster the first responders are not wasting resources and are connecting better. I think there is still a lot to be done. This is what that research my research is about and the possibilities excite me.

In terms of professionals in communications who want to target their careers towards the future, what should be good to know?

I think social media is a good skill for any field, but especially communications and journalism students. The world has changed completely; the professors obviously have great skill and knowledge but these professors come from a more traditional form of journalism and PR… The world the student is graduating into is not the world the professor came from. It’s now a world of digital entrepeneurship and it’s a world of personal branding. I don’t like the phrase ‘personal branding’ but people understand what it means. It means to create a professional persona online where others are going to hire you based on the way you present yourself. I don’t think those skills are being taught in school. I don’t know that entrepeneurship is being taught to communication students.

I know that in journalism school you learn that you must take yourself out of the story and you learn to fair and balanced, to be neutral. It’s exactly the opposite of what works online. If you are a blogger, you are a part of the story. In fact, people follow you because of your story, because of your challenges, your dreams, what you are trying to do. People like it when they know that you are from the left or the right…Anderson Cooper and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but also other news personalities, we pretty much know where they are; meanwhile, the journalism students are taught you cannot put yourself in the story when you interview… Even BuzzFeed likes to hire people that already have a community: it’s not that you know about fashion, is that you built a community of ten thousand followers because of fashion…But are students being taught that too? Students have to figure it out for themselves.

To get in touch with Alex de Carvalho, contact him via Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin or Instagram.

Follow the author on Twitter @yadicarocaro 

Living in a Bilingual World

Vanessa Vazquez’s career in journalism is based on navigating two cultures. Her career started twenty years ago in her native Puerto Rico as a reporter in The San Juan Star, a newspaper targeted to English speaking audiences (in Spanish speaking island). Then she migrated to the United States and helped the Orlando Sentinel launch its Spanish language newspaper El Sentinel for a growing Hispanic audience. A few years later, she did the same for The Tampa Tribune with Centro Tampa, a Spanish language newspaper and website. I asked about her views on journalism from both sides.

You started in Puerto Rico in an English language newspaper to work here in Spanish language media. What was you experience in The San Juan star?

The San Juan Star was a generational newspaper for me. My mom worked there and my brother worked there. I grew up around it. The reason I liked The San Juan Star was that at the time it was the only newspaper in English language. The target audience at the time was for people who were transplanted or, like my mother, who grew up with two languages and felt more comfortable with the English language… The San Juan Star was for me home. I grew up there.

You say it was for transplants for people coming from the US. Was it for people who grew up in the states and came back to the island?

We had a lot of military bases (in Puerto Rico). When we started in 1958, there were a lot of Americans living in Puerto Rico that did not knew Spanish; there were (also) a lot of Puerto Ricans from the Island that were going back and forth. It was a perfect fit in 1958 and it kept growing. It was a pretty big newspaper back then…They had 80 thousand subscriptions. That was the necessity of having it bilingual because we were a bilingual culture.

Back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it was forced (to speak English in Puerto Rico) so a lot people got comfortable with that language. The transplants, meaning the people who came from military bases, stayed there. In PR we had active bases until 2000s… We had like 6 military bases. Those people did not knew Spanish but they wanted to be part of the community…When I came in to Orlando we did the same thing: we wanted to cover what was going on in the area but in Spanish because (immigrants) felt comfortable. So it was a reversal for me: from a newspaper in English to a newspaper in Spanish… We wanted to cover everything that happened in the Island in English but in Orlando we wanted to cover what happened in the area in Spanish.

Was there a difference in content or the way the news were written or in the coverage from The San Juan Star?

We were different because 80 per cent of the editors came from the US newspapers so they came with the idea from journalism in the US, meaning that we did not like the idea of becoming friends (with sources); we were very hardcore. That is why we won the Pulitzer Prize because we were different.

You mean they covered more hard news?

We did hard news. We went and did reporting, old school reporting. If we had to piss somebody off we did and that is why we got the respect from a lot of people even from the government. They said if The San Juan Star covers it, it was because something was wrong and it was respected.

(…) When I came to The Orlando Sentinel, my editor Maria Padilla, came from a newspaper in English. We worked together in The San Juan Star, she came from that mentality of ‘no, we are not friends of anybody, we are going to find the two sides of the story and we are going to do it in Spanish.’ That is why El Sentinel was so successful from day one.

What do you think was the intent for The Orlando Sentinel with the newspaper El Sentinel? Was it marketing or the need to publish news in Spanish?

It’s funny you ask that because we at The Orlando Sentinel we had one page for the Latino market. In 1998, the Orlando Sentinel did a story about how the Puerto Rican government was bringing criminals here without alerting the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. These were criminals who were witnesses of massacres, who were drug dealers. They were brought here with new identity. The Orlando police was stopping them and they were realizing ‘this guy has new Social Security’ number… things were not adding up. The Orlando Sentinel sent two reporters and that is how I met them; we all worked together. They needed to find somebody who spoke Spanish and who new the library. I knew the library. That was a good ride.

They wrote the story, but the copy editor in Orlando was not so cultural and wrote a headline that say ‘Puerto Rican government is dumping criminals’ (see related story here). That caused the whole Orlando Puerto Rican community to go against the Orlando Sentinel; (they would say) ‘lets go and kill reporters,’ literally, because the Orlando Sentinel did not understand the new dynamics of the Puerto Rican community coming to Orlando. They said it was racist. So pretty much the editor said ‘we need to do something about this.’

The Orlando Sentinel was also owner of a Spanish language newspaper in Chicago which was very successful. They already had Maria Padilla working at the Orlando Sentinel, they also had Pedro Ruz. They knew me so they hired me immediately… They needed someone who spoke Spanish. So you have three people in the newsroom trying to culturize and explain (to staff) ‘we are Americans, most of (Hispanics) speak English, but they are afraid (to speak it) and what you guys did was racist.’

(The Orlando Sentinel) created one page, only one page of content of Hispanic media in English and Spanish. That was in 2000. It was very successful… At the moment they decided to do it bilingual because we had a very interesting Puerto Rican community. It was divided: Puerto Ricans from New York who do not want to deal with Puerto Ricans from the Island… (That is why) we decided to do El Sentinel, but bilingual… It was so successful that La Prensa, (a Spanish language newspaper) which was there before us, changed their whole format. They realized they needed to start covering the news instead of being a shopper.

How was you experience in Tampa with a similar project launching a Hispanic language newspaper and website? Did you see the same integration?

No, when we went to Tampa we had a hard time, because the person running the project had a hard time understanding journalism. (Tampa residents) did not wanted to be compared to Miami. They did not wanted to be compared to Orlando. They wanted to maintain their identity. They did not trust the newspaper. The difference is that the Orlando Sentinel was the only one newspaper in town. The Tampa Tribune had a competition with The St Petersburg Times and for history’s sake, The Tampa Tribune was always known to be racist. It was a tough sell.

When we started, I remember me shaking my head asking why do we need to be separate from the English newspaper. I came from Orlando, separation did not work.

Vanessa has also been a fervent proponent of online presence for newspapers for many years, and was very vocal about letting editors and publishers know the web was the future (I know this first hand since I worked with her many years). As a self-taught techie, Vanessa expanded her media experience to work in email marketing with companies as New York Life and Marine Max. She also owns VVY HUB a company dedicated to help small businesses establish their online marketing presence.

You worked a lot with the online side (of newspapers). Can you talk about the evolution of that side?

I started in online journalism in 2000 at the Orlando Sentinel. I decided to go into that route because back then AOL and other companies were involved in giving the news, and people were going to (these sites) to see information because it was faster. People did not wanted to wait for the 6 o clock news or the paper the next day. I saw there was this desire for news now.

Back then (the concept) was to have a teaser (online) and then do the big story in print. Now sadly, print its being thrown to the garbage, what (media companies) are doing is digital first, then they print a crappy story. It’s very sad to see how they (integrate).

You have worked a lot with Hispanic media. In your current job you are targeting Hispanic market as well. What are some big misconceptions about big corporations on the Hispanic market?

That’s is atopic which will take 3 days but I can try to convey in on two seconds (laughs). Mass media wants to lump everybody into one category. Hispanics are different, we come from different cultures, we have different dialects. In different areas we are totally different; we adapt to our surroundings but we are very attached to our homelands.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter at @lilprgidget. 

Follow the author on Twitter at @yadicarocaro.