Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fitting Twitter into the bigger picture

I've just re-read the nineteen previous posts labelled Twitter on this blog and I think I've sufficiently hammered on two main points:
  • There's no more reason to believe a "Twitter and new media will supplant traditional news media" narrative than in so many other "Everything is Different Now" cases that have come along.
  • Twitter is not particularly self-correcting and there's no clear way to sort fact from fantasy beyond good old-fashioned skepticism -- or referring back to other sources.
So once we dismiss the usual strawmen, where does that leave us?  What is the real relationship between Twitter and traditional media (which themselves have adapted significantly to the web)?  The easy answer is "it's complicated", which seems true as far as it goes but really doesn't say much.  So how about a few random data points?

Item: Tweeting is now a standard part of the celebrity publicity machine.  In turn, gossip magazines and sites routinely report on celebrity's tweets.  It would be interesting to know to what extent celebrities and their publicists are tweeting directly to fans and to what extent they're tweeting to magazine/web site editors.

Item: In the recent scandal leading to the resignation of George Entwistle the head of the BBC, one of the more devastating points of John Humphrys' interview of the soon-to-be-outgoing head was Entwistle's admission that he was unaware of a highly relevant tweet about an upcoming BBC Newsnight documentary (that, and his also having been unaware of the documentary itself).  Humphrys goes on to assert that even if Entwistle hadn't been personally following Twitter, someone on his staff should have been.

With further prompting from Humphrys, Entwistle then goes on to admit he also missed the front-page story in the Guardian denouncing the Newsnight piece, leaving one to wonder what, if anything, Entwistle was aware of.  Nonetheless the presumption, coming from a well-respected traditional journalist in a rather high-stakes context, was that Twitter was something that the head of the BBC, and journalists in general, should pay serious attention to.  (Lest this post present too one-sided a view of Entwistle, here's a transcript of the interview -- the Torygraph uses a less annoying format than the Grauniad article I complained about.)

Item:  Swirling in the same cloud of scandal, was the shockingly prolific criminal behavior of a recently deceased well-known television personality.  The resulting public outrage included, as one would expect by now, a major Twitter storm.
Item: Twitter continues to be an important means of smuggling information out of repressive states.  I'm glad to say that Google's Speak2Tweet service has played a role in helping bypass state internet crackdowns, most recently in Syria (I have nothing personally to do with providing this service, and I don't know anything about it that you don't, but I'm happy to be associated with it indirectly as a Googler).  On the other hand, a fair bit of mis- and dis- information makes its way into the unfiltered feed.  Considering the stakes, it seems wise to be more cautious than usual in judging the reliability of tweets, to say nothing of acting on them.

Item: A recent Twitter spat between an American economist and the president of Estonia is being made into an opera.  The opera will premiere in Tallinn, to be performed by an Estonian mezzo-soprano, so one can imagine that the Estonian side might come off rather better.

For the most part, Twitter seems more like a parallel channel to the traditional media, rather than something likely to supplant them.  In all but one case, Twitter looks like one more tool in the box.  Publicists have always promoted their clients by any means available, the public has always complained by whatever means is at hand, dissidents have always found ways to get their story out, and pop-culture oriented artists have always grabbed on to whatever was floating by.  To the extent that it's harder for regimes to prevent suppressed information from leaking out, credit should go mostly to the internet and web as a whole, acknowledging that Twitter has been particularly effective.

The second item is more intriguing.  In this case, Twitter looks more like something new intruding in the traditional media game.  Imagine radio journalists in the mid twentieth century realizing that they needed to pay attention to this wild and wooly new "television" thing, and print journalists some time before that realizing that there really was something to these new "radio" devices or, for that matter, the current interplay between traditional outlets and blogs.

The key here is not the technology, but who's involved and how.  In the first item, Twitter is effectively acting as a new medium in the traditional publicity structure.  Likewise, in the last three items, the people, or the artists, are making use of Twitter as they would any other medium.  In the second item, the whole point is that Entwistle should have been treating Twitter as another medium for gathering information (or perhaps he did, by ignoring it).  The implication, really, is that treating Twitter as another medium among many is the normal thing to do, and by not doing so, Entwistle showed himself to be woefully out of touch.

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