Thursday, 11 June 2009

Why journalists write so much rubbish about Twitter

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 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.


Benjamin said...

Absolutely spot on - and to a large degree it isn't their fault. That point about celebs not representing the typical user should be in bold. So many statistical sound bite I've seen wrap the celebs into their figures then take averages. That is completely broken too.

Cyberdoyle said...

I have been on twitter since it started, and as you pointed out it was only when the celebs got involved that it actually engaged the masses and became the extremely useful tool it is now. I think the same points would apply to digital engagement in general, the message has to come from celebs, either in soaps or endorsement in newspapers, then the few people the govt is worrying about bringing into the new age will soon become involved. This is a very thoughtful blog post. excellent perception.

Anonymous said...

on the head. I think there's a few other reasons, though. One (and this, I suspect, covers Baroness Greenfield) - they're afraid. There's a party going on and they're out in the cold. Massive social construction of knowledge is a threat to authority (to think that Ben Goldacre could pour cold water on all these distinguished academics).

But the big question for me is: do we care? Do we need the old journalists and their pat on our back? I can get my news from or, do I need to watch a 15 minute item on Ronaldo's sale to Liverpool? Or was it Man U?

Dougald Hine said...

@ Benjamin - Agreed! Like most of the problems with journalism (e.g. the difficulty reporting activist movements, which I've blogged about before), it has more to do with structural issues within the practice of journalism than failings on the part of individual journalists. Interested in your point about broken statistics - can you point me to any examples?

@ Cyberdoyle - That's something really worth thinking about. I certainly only found Twitter becoming really useful from around the time it hit the media. I'd put this down to me not giving it enough attention in the earlier stages - but maybe it really was that the network effect didn't kick in until the big surge in new users. In which case, do the old media still have a crucial role in getting word about a new tool out to enough people for it to become big and effective? (I know I wouldn't say no to old media coverage of School of Everything, Signpostr or Space Makers Network, however accurate or inaccurate it was.

@ designedforlearning - Yes, that's a huge question - and one that really deserves a separate post. My instinct is to resist setting it up as an opposition. Do we need the blessing of the old media for our new tools to succeed? Well, Cyberdoyle seems to suggest we might do - and, like I say, I don't know a startup that wouldn't jump at coverage from the BBC, the Guardian or the New York Times. That doesn't mean those media or that media ecology are healthy. I do think there are things the old media do well and which we'll have to figure out ways to keep doing. But that's not to say that we "need" newspapers or broadcast media, any more than we "need" Twitter for that matter.

Thinking about your football example, though, do you think we'll see a social media replacement for the broadcast model of covering live sports matches?

Stacey Meadwell said...

@egstaceym I've been twittering personally since October last year and professionally for a couple of months. It has only been in recent months after a lot of playing and experimenting with my personal twitter account that I've really started to feel the benefits from building up a group of like minded followers. The added benefit in professionally twittering now is that I can take what I've learnt and apply it and hopefully reap the benefits a lot sooner.
I agree that the media has jumped on just one aspect of twitter, thanks for the post.

Dol said...

I'd be curious to know if the "network effect" you speak of has a strong geographical element too. I've never used Twitter / really thought about it, but my entirely uninformed impression is that you need a critical mass within your own episteme / geographical area for the beneficial effects to take off.

I'd like to know more about what sort of knowledge might be being "socially constructed" from twitter interactions. All new forms of distributed cognition are fascinating.

Also, question: what amount of time do you spend twittering / reading twitters?

Tom Stafford said...

I'm still not clear on *why* you find twitter so useful. What is it about the medium that generates these conversations you mention?

Dougald Hine said...

@egstaceym - Yes, just about everyone I know who is enthusiastic about Twitter has a similar story about the slow burn that led to that enthusiasm. Personally, I'm a little cautious about seeing the service as a means to reap rewards, or any other end - although I don't complain when it means lots more people read the things I write!

@Dan - good questions, which deserve a longer response than I can manage tonight. Quickly, though:

1. One of the things I want to write about in a future post is the range of quite different ways in which I have found Twitter useful and/or enjoyable - the geographical element is definitely relevant to the network effect in some of these, but not in others.

2. I think the best way to illustrate this might be for me to post edited versions of two or three interesting Twitter conversations I've had recently - which would certainly make a further post. That could then be a starting point for reflecting on it as a medium for distributed cognition.

3. Very hard to quantify, because on the whole it is not an intensive medium - this is the problem for journalists, a diligent two or three hours probing Twitter won't get you anywhere, but a few minutes a day for a month will. I never have the experience of "working through" my Twitter feed, the way I do with my email inbox(es). The convention of distilling a thought or message into 140 characters means I get more from less - and most of what's in the feed is public and drifting by, for me to respond to or ignore or never read at all, rather than demanding my attention. (It is straightforward, though, to track those messages addressed to or referring to me personally.)

@Tom - yes, I can see that I have approached the subject back to front, analysing the failure of others to explain Twitter before I have done so myself. As promised, I will come back to this in another post - and, I hope, answer your question.

Steve Hayes said...

Is it just my imagination, or are the media getting it more and more wrong about more and more things? Not just Twitter, but everything else too.

Kevin Montgomery said...

Great post.......I didn't get twitter for over a year.....I was on it, but had no clue of how to make it work for me.
I finally got it, and now it is my lifeline to alot of info.

Unknown said...

*light cough* though Guardian Technology first wrote about Twitter on 15 March 2007, and put it on its front page May 17 2007.

And don't forget "Twitter from America", which was on the front page of the whole paper, on 18 April 2008, about No.10 tweeting on G Brown visit to the US.

Just to say, I suppose, that it's easy to tar all newspapers with the same brush, when it's not necessarily rewarded.

Mark said...

The celebrity angle has been extraordinarily problematic in making people understand what Twitter is really about and why it serves as a respectable connector. That's why I had an issue with the Time Magazine article which praised Twitter for its public utility and yet focused its entire energy on celebrity Twitterers.

Dougald Hine said...

Steve - That's one of those impressions it's virtually impossible to test, isn't it? But I can think of a couple of reasons why it could be the case. Firstly, news organisations are shorter staffed and there are less resources for high quality journalism. Secondly, in certain areas at least, the world is becoming more complex and thus harder to understand and report. OTOH, I think it was HL Mencken who used to offer $100 to any journalist who could report a speech he gave and not make at least two mistakes - and claimed never to have had to pay out! If journalism is the first draft of history, we should forgive the typos.

Kevin - the interesting question, for me, is whether it took you (and me, too) so long to get Twitter because of how subtle it is - or because Twitter now works in ways it just didn't when we signed up.

Charles - the Guardian is certainly ahead of the game in its tech coverage generally - and the Twitter story on the home page has become enough of a joke to be the basis for their April Fool this year. I'd still say the understanding of Twitter shown by their reporters is patchy - especially once it strays out of the Technology section.

But I'm really not setting out to tar anyone. My point is that Twitter is genuinely difficult to write about well within the constraints of normal journalistic practice. (And, as Benjamin says above, to a large degree this isn't the fault of individual papers or journalists.)

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Istvanski said...

Twitter is many things to many people - chatroom, search engine, email, news feed, stalking utility - whatever it is, it's just another form of passing electronic communication. In that respect, Twitter is nothing new and you're quite right, "microblogging" is inaccurate and sounds like a tag dreamt up by Stephen Fry's marketing team.
There's been too much hype in the media about Twitter and it's precisely that which has put me off from "joining the party" in the usual banal way that many users are prone to, ie; "@istvanski I've just laid the biggest cable after eating 2kgs of raw meat..."
Good grief.

Anonymous said...

Twitter is the biggest waste of time. You will all look back and say 'what, I just wasted my entire life tweeting when I could have been living'.

Anonymous said...

Twitter is the biggest waste of time. You will all look back and say 'what, I just wasted my entire life tweeting when I could have been living'.

Dougald said...

I presume you mean "when I could have been commenting on a blog"?

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