Around the start of 2009, the media here in Britain discovered Twitter. At times, it's been hard to tell whether the service had just crossed the chasm or jumped the shark. What's distinctive, though, is quite how bad the reporting of Twitter has been - significantly worse, I would say, than the equivalent coverage of Facebook, when it made a similar leap into public consciousness a couple of years earlier.
"Oh yes," my dad said, when I mentioned Twitter to him back in February. "It's one of those things that people are using that means they don't have real conversations any more." I couldn't blame him for getting this impression - I'd heard the same report on Radio 4 earlier that week - and I'm no unbridled techno-enthusiast myself. Yet what has annoyed me about the reporting of Twitter is that these claims of its anti-social effects are so dramatically at odds with my experience as a user. I can honestly say I've never met a tool which has led to so many interesting offline, face-to-face experiences.
Of course, the media coverage is unlikely to harm Twitter. My mum even signed up for it the other week. (You can give her a nice surprise by following @dougaldsmum!)
But, since I keep hearing the same recycled nonsense, I thought I'd write a couple of posts about why I've found Twitter such an exciting tool - but, first, about why the media find it so difficult to report well.
As I see it, there are at least three significant problems when it comes to covering Twitter, over and above the usual reasons journalists get things wrong.
1. Because it was Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and co who brought it to their attention, they focus on celebrity Twitterers. The trouble is that trying to understand social media by looking at the behaviour of celebrity users makes about as much sense as trying to understand society by looking at the behaviour of celebrities.
2. A number of eloquent and apparently expert voices have offered very strong opinions on the service, without having used it or apparently paid much attention to how others actually use it - in some cases, making unjustified use of their authority in other fields. Oliver James, Alain de Botton and Baroness Susan Greenfield are all guilty of this. (And don't take my word for it - Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, accuses the Baroness of "abusing her position as a professor, and head of the Royal Institution... using these roles to give weight to her speculations and prejudices in a way that is entirely inappropriate".)
3. Twitter takes time to get your head round - and journalists are permanently in a hurry:
- The value of Google was immediately obvious the first time you used it and got good search results, whereas the value of Twitter grows on you gradually.
- We don't have good short-hand ways of explaining what it does. ('Micro-blogging', for example, is a really misleading tag.)
- To complicate matters further, getting the best out of Twitter generally requires the use of an external client (a program that runs on your desktop) such as Tweetdeck, rather than visiting Twitter.com directly. Most non-specialist journalists, like most internet users, are only beginning to adjust to the possibility that the web isn't about going to sites, but about information coming to you.
So unless a reporter has been using the service personally for long enough to get a feel for it, they are very likely to pick up the wrong end of the stick. Or mistake the stick for a snake.