Some Remarks on Twitter

From a researcher’s perspective, there isn’t a better way to keep in touch with what’s going on “right now” in the world than Twitter.  It is a medium that allows consumers to create small utterances about their daily lives and thus serves as a never-ending survey data feed for a myriad of different research questions. For example, search for any brand name on Twitter and you will get a whole variety of “tweets” from gushing fandom to service disappointments (something that companies are struggling to get feedback or data on). Twitter (along with Facebook) is quietly transforming how businesses interact with consumers. From a researcher’s perspective, it’s both an invaluable tool and a very interesting research subject in itself.

But amongst all the hype surrounding Twitter, we seem to forget that no new technology is neutral, nor are all technology exclusively positive in their effects. If Marshall McLuhan has taught us anything, it’s that studying the medium itself is more interesting than its content. Media are never “just” technologies; they are also social and cultural systems with their in-built codes, idioms and practices. Right now it seems that Twitter is having an effect on society at large, redefining how we evaluate information and even how we read the news, among others.

For example, take what sports journalist Bill Simmons had this to say about Twitter and how it’s affecting his profession:

What’s the biggest story the media has missed this year?

The potential of Twitter. Old-school media doesn’t get Twitter at all. A lot of people still think it’s a fad and it’s totally not a fad. […] Now reporters are posting scoops on Twitter before they send the finished stories into their employers. People are not seeing what is happening here. Facebook is a social network; Twitter is a media/marketing vehicle disguised as a social network.

Are you nervous or excited about the future of Journalism? Why?

I’m terrified. I think it’s going to hell in a hand basket. The emphasis is on quantity over quality and immediacy over accuracy; the newspapers have made it worse by trying to speed up their immediacy online over just kicking everyone’s asses with better writing and reporting. Newsmakers can control stories about themselves by selectively dispersing relevant information as well as who gets to talk to them (and for what reason). And too many writers are more interested in just saying what they have to say instead of crafting the way they are saying it.

Being in the know or being the “first” to find out about something is an appealing notion to people. Our culture reveres the pioneer and the trendsetters. But on Twitter this phenomenon has become an end in itself at the expense of accuracy, as Simmons put it. Whenever something interesting pops up, some people have an urge to “break” the story and sort of put up a flag on it saying, “if this story becomes big, remember I was first!” And if the news turns out to be false, there’s always the next one. On the other hand some newspapers have moved on to offer more in-depth or second opinion pieces, because they know they can’t compete in speed anymore, nor can they risk running unconfirmed stories.

I’ll leave you with this small tidbit from Ad-Age’s review of the movie State of Play which has an interesting take on the change we are witnessing:

Watching “State of Play,” I couldn’t help but think that I was witnessing the dying of a cinematic archetype: the Hero Journalist. It feels like a bookend to “All the President’s Men,” with Crowe’s worn-down, worn-out reporter character, Cal McAffrey, as the earnest-but-embittered descendant of Robert Redford’s and Dustin Hoffman’s dashing young Woodward and Bernstein. Hollywood’s going to stop making movies like this because, let’s face it, newspapers — those that are left — are in no position to inspire yarns like this anymore.

Henri Weijo
Project Researcher
Media Factory

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