Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

Ideas, observations, debate, democracy and Twitter

In Monday’s Globe and Mail, celebrity author/New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell said the following as part of a Q-and-A about social media:

Do ideas spread through social media? I don’t think they are vehicles. People aren’t spreading ideas on Twitter, they’re spreading observations, perhaps.

Julie Penner didn’t take well to that:

M. Gladwell is an idiot, perhaps. “People aren’t spreading ideas on Twitter, they’re spreading observations, perhaps.”

Myself to Penner:

I don’t think Gladwell’s wildly off-base. Twitterians reward pithy bon mots much more than they do actual ideas.

Justin Beach told Penner (which she retweeted):

it’s too bad when that apple hit Newton he made an observation instead of having an idea.

Myself to Beach:

But Newton would have probably tweeted: “An apple just hit my head.”

Penner to me:

I think there’s a good mix of the two – depends on who you’re following. As I just RT’d, observations lead to ideas.

Apple hit head is just where it starts. Seeds/tweets are being planted.

My responses:

Re: Apple/head. Yes, seeds are planted, but my eg. showed the initial tweet would have likely been obs.

How much RT juice would Eistein have gotten if he just tweeted e=mc(sq’d)? :)

She then said this about Gladwell:

Am mostly annoyed that he disses Twitter without having tried it. Since he’s a go-to guy for media, I find that ridiculous.

Penner has a point, but we don’t know how much Gladwell has observed Twitter without participating. However, it seems that contrary to the Globe article, he did once have a Twitter account — although it’s been inactive since October.

The convo then narrowed to Beach and myself. Here’s Beach on Newton:

maybe, it could have taken days for him to figure out how to get gravity into 140 char. but ideas start w/ observations.

Myself to Beach:

Ideas start w/ observations, but they aren’t the same thing. That’s why I’m mildly defending Gladwell. :)

This is where the path started to diverge from the original ideas/observations theme:

Beach to me:

I would also point out that traditional media – print, radio and tv, primarily make observations based on events.

Myself to Beach:

Trad-med is obs-dominant, but I follow soc-med a fair bit. I don’t find it to be a great ideas incubator/debating chamber.

Beach to me:

Maybe not but I find it more of an incubator of ideas & debate than either traditional media or government. So compared to what?

Myself to Beach:

By traditional media, do you mean books? By traditional government, do you mean medicare? Be serious.

Beach responded thusly:

Good ideas have come out of trad-media & gov’t – but both have been around for hundreds of yrs.

both also generally represent a very narrow range of views, observations and ideas.

That raised my eyebrows:

And I obviously like the new soc-med tools, but they too have their limitations and flaws. There is no perfect medium.

Twitter is structurally undemocratic. I’ll send you a link to a good piece I once read.

What I blogged back on May 5, 2009 was A very good broadside against Twitter, which linked to a commentary by programmer Seth Finkelstein in the Guardian. An excerpt:

The “A-list” phenomenon, where a few sources with a large readership dominate the information flow on a topic, was particularly stark. Since the numbers of “following” and “followers” are visible, the usual steep ranking curve was immediately evident. A highly ranked person is free to attack anyone lower down the ranks, as there’s no way for the wronged party to effectively reply to the same readers.

Getting a significant followership and thus being socially prominent is also important. Hence, there are major incentives to churn out quick punditry that is pleasing to partisans.

Beach tweeted the following:

No, there isn’t. Never said perfect. But in terms of democracy of ideas – best so far.

less democratic than trad. media (requires millions to own) or government (requires millions to run) – Ok shoot.

The asymmetrical distribution of power on Twitter is of little concern to Mr. Beach. When I tweeted:

You’ve got 1,400 followers. Debate someone with 1.4 million followers who cherry-picks what to resp. to. Let me know how it goes.

He responded with:

Oh…but what you’re describing is democracy. People decide individually who to follow and can change their mind.

Myself to Beach:

Not really. Because your tweets don’t go to Person X’s 1.4M followers. So it’s not really a debate

Beach to me:

But if any of those 1.4 million go and read what’s being responded to – person x’s credibility will fall and will lose followers.

I’d love to see some statistics on how often that happens, given the volume of the information flow on Twitter. I’m having problems imagining how badly a celebrity Twitterer would have to err in attacking a little person to trigger a widespread, detectable backlash. 

And if Twitter is not as democratic as Beach thinks? Doesn’t matter — other forms of media are less democratic, in his view:

Still the most democratic of media – If I dispute something said on TV news – no one outside of my living room knows.

My response:

Twitter is about that democratic. At least with call-in radio/TV, you reach the same audience the host/guest does.

Beach again:

but even with call in TV/Radio the host still controls the “debate” – they push a button and you’re gone – and they can continue

Twitter is far more democratic than TV/Radio – anyone can participate. Your “audience” depends on your perceived value.

At that point, I had to beg off, but I did promise to address the issue further in this blog post.

Presumably Mr. Beach is familiar with the “block” function on Twitter. I got blocked by Dave Winer (29,528 followers at this writing) for my in-kind responses to this drivel on his blog from May 10, 2009. He wants to be hardassed about criticizing journalists and journalism, but doesn’t like the same tone directed at him.

Interestingly, the tough-talkin’ critic didn’t even respond to any of the comments left on his post. Ballsy. But at one point, he left something on Twitter that could only be interpreted as a cheap shot at me, but it wasn’t even composed as an @billdinTO tweet.I hold people like that in disdain.

Now he’ll be a visiting scholar at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute with his buddy, j-prof Jay Rosen (33,776 Twitter followers as of this writing). Read this to see why I lost respect for Rosen — and learned new appreciation for Finkelstein’s critique about the asymmetrical nature of Twitter.

I’m still amused by this response from Mathew Ingram, who told me the following on March 20:

if you asked questions that were less inflammatory and/or more relevant, I would be more likely to answer them

That came about towards the end of an exchange about anonymous online comments. Here were some of my tweets directed at Ingram, Howard Owens and Steve Yelvington (sorry, not enough time to reconstruct the entire narrative):

@howardowens @mathewi How about this: Submit your comment to an editor & make your case for anonymity.

@mathewi @howardowens I say whatever the site’s size, req real names & have strict, enforced rules for occ anon comments.

@howardowens @mathewi That would be my point. Here’s a link to a blog post about a CP story on toxic online comments –

Owens, who is in broad agreement with me on anonymous comments, liked that post. Ingram ignored it. Actually, if I remember correctly he ignored the story when it first came out too. Doesn’t fit with his narrative.

@mathewi You say restr’g the pool of commenters like it was a bad thing. Restricting racist, hateful assholes, to name 2, would be good. …

@mathewi … If someone wants to be a racist, hateful asshole, fine. But they should stand in the light. Don’t give them the cover of darkness.

@mathewi But to self-police, you need a community. Not many ppl want to join a toxic community.

@mathewi Frank is good, but poisonous is bad. And are we in 1979 East Germany/2010 Tehran? We need anon. comments for frankness?!?!

@yelvington The U.S., Cda are free/democratic societies. Does guy w/ gov’t spouse need cover of anon. to issue racist comments?

@yelvington I wouldn’t deny anyone the right to stand on the st with a bag over their head & speak. But anon comments on a news site?

@yelvington It’s both ethics & productive convo. As I’ve said earlier, one can apply for anonymity, but it should be a rare exception.

@yelvington How about if Barack Obama penned an anon. screed against his own health-care plan?

@yelvington Yes, anonymity is required in some cases. But blanket anonymity is poison in the well of civil discourse.

I never got a response from Yelvington.

I retweeted this point by Ingram:

@mathewi @howardowens: you say there’s a fundamental right to know who a commenter is, but I don’t ask people to prove identity before I talk to them

I then said this:

@mathewi Uh, Mathew, what if the anon. stranger borrows your megaphone, yells, ‘I hate Pakis!’ & then leaves, w/ everyone looking at you?

Followed by:

@mathewi Good Lord, Mathew, anonymity takes away any responsibility for bad behaviour!!! Less anon = less bad commenting.

No responses.

When Ingram suggested he would blog about his exchange with Owens, I tweeted:

Make sure you answer the questions you dodged.

When Mr. Ingram chided me for not playing nice, I said:

They might have been inflammatory, but they were hardly irrelevant. They go to the core of the anon. comments issue. …

What would have been an approp. degree of inflammatoriness — saying, “Good point, Mathew?”

Now that you’ve read my inflammatory tweets, read Ingram’s resulting post and decide for yourself  whether they were irrelevant.

Although gentle, very political Mathew is the former communities editor of the Globe and Mail, I think he could take some interaction lessons from his former colleague Doug Saunders.

Although Saunders wrote what I consider to be a dreadful piece about Climategate, he didn’t back away from some very tough questions I directed at him in a Twitter exchange. I respect that.

It left me with a better idea of why he approached the story the way he did. Hopefully he had a better understanding of what I saw as major problems with the story.

In comparison, people who say logically unsupportable things and then whine about their critics not being nice? I don’t respect that. That may be social mediaism, but in my world, it’s not journalism.

Beach talked about TV, but essentially, that Twitter exchange on anonymous comments was, for the most part, a TV panel. The difference was I watched the panelists tweet through my iPhone.

There’s an illusion of wider interactivity and democracy with Twitter, but it’s very much an “everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others” ethos. For the most part, it’s where the cool kids hold forth — as Finkelstein once noted. It’s not a 21st century incubator of the Socratic Method.

The issues of quality of democracy and debate on Twitter are human problems as much as they are technological ones. Twitter is as hierarchical, hypocritical and political as any other place.*

* If you ever get the chance, read Greenpeace founder Robert Hunter’s Warriors of The Rainbow or Ed Sanders’ The Family (about Charles Manson). Marginalizing dissenting views isn’t restricted to the mainstream. 

If I could make a few suggestions about making it a better place for exchanging ideas, here’s what I’d do:

  • Treat Twitter as an interactive platform, not a broadcasting medium
  • Contrary Thursdays – Use Thursdays to post at least one thing that you might not agree with, but makes a good argument
  • If you’re advocating a point of view, don’t dodge questions
  • Retweet dissenting views generously — something that’s more important for people high up the tweet chain. The best high-profile person I’ve seen for this on Twitter is Robert Scoble
  • Admit when you’re wrong — although I can think of at least one occasion where I’ve violated this rule because I was in a pissy mood

For the most part, those suggestions won’t be followed. It’s not to the advantage of those with power on Twitter.

That’s too bad. Ideas need vigorous testing, and that means a commitment to democracy — something thwarted by Twitter’s structure and culture, at least the parts I’ve observed so far.

But if you’re just tossing off observations for the aggrandizement of your like-minded followers, then Twitter works just fine as it is.


Now that I’ve finished this little essay, I can already think of lots of attackable flaws. :)

I might write a counter-post if no one does my dirty work for me. :)


In September 2009, I answered some questions about journalism, blogging and social media for Ian Capstick of MediaStyle. My answers have some mild relevance to this discussion.

Tue, April 6 2010 » Main Page, Media

9 Responses

  1. brian moffatt April 7 2010 @ 9:56 am

    there are about 900 things i’d like to say re: this post.

    i will start with the following and then run away and hide under a rock:

    1) twitter spreads ideas for ppl who think sound bites are thought.

  2. Justin April 7 2010 @ 10:13 am

    While there may be cases when a twitter user with alot of followers can bulldoze someone with few and while I can understand why that would be frustrating you have to take in the bigger picture.

    Traditional media, print, television, radio etc., does not come close to the democratic nature of Twitter. The first major obstacle is the cost of entry. If you want to start a twitter account you have to have a computer and about 5 minutes. If you want to start a national TV network, or a large national or regional newspaper you need many millions of dollars and then have to get permission (in the case of TV) from the CRTC.

    I don’t know where to start with the number of ways in which traditional media limit debate. There is first the problem of self-censorship. Television in particular worries about offending viewers, advertisers and to an extent anyway, the government. You can criticize the government but you don’t want to carry it too far.

    Even with phone in shows or viewer mail there is a screening process that is on the surface designed to weed out the crazies but in reality does sometimes limit debate. I recently talked to a screener who said that, on a particular issue, they were only allowing calls from Liberal and Conservative callers. The Greens and the NDP were both screened out. When they are reading, for example, viewer email there are one or two people who decide what is and is not a valid point or an interesting comment.

    So, in the examples you used, someone with a large number of followers shouts down and shuts out someone with few but in the traditional media the person with ‘few’ or even well known people who have viewpoints outside the traditional boundaries can be shut out entirely.

    It is also worth pointing out that Twitter is a social media tool that sits in a toolbox which also includes Facebook, blogs, podcasts etc., all of which are free or nearly free. So if you need to make a point twitter is just one of the channels open to you.

    Traditional media is, to an extent, adopting the internet and social media. Most news sites, for example, allow comments. But I’ve yet to see much indication that those comments have much impact on what goes to air or the points of view presented. I think a look at how most traditional media use social media gives you an idea of the mindset.

    It also relates to the problem you were describing: – followers: 1,013,073 following: 264 – followers: 27,963 following: 82 – followers: 13,190 following: 10

    So, while they are using Twitter to promote their content they are not really participating. They are not reading what is being said and, you’ll notice, they are not responding to anything that is said.

    It should be pointed out that the National Post is much better followers: 8,261 following 4,495

    though they also are not responding to much that is being said.

    I’m not claiming that Twitter, social media, or the internet are perfect. One of the obvious and glaring problems is that it allows you to tune out views that you do not agree with and only talk to other members of the choir but, to a large extent, people do that anyway or at least some people. The CBC, for example, has been accused for years of having a liberal bias. As someone who tends to be on the left I can assure you that the CBC is not biased toward my point of view. The reality is that the CBC simply does not have a conservative bias and therefore, to a certain percentage of conservatives, it has a liberal bias. It does not tell them what they want to hear and so they tune it out.

    On the whole though I cannot help but be excited about the internet and its potential, warts and all. As someone who has studied the history of media and the impact of every medium that arrived the potential of a medium with few if any barriers to entry (a few hundred dollars for a computer or a library card) is almost indescribable.

    When the printing press arrived, it was only for governments and the very wealthy and subject to political and religious censorship. Even with that it helped kick off the renaissance, the reformation and the age of enlightenment and calls for democratic reform and responsible government. and lead to the current western literacy levels. Television, radio and film have had smaller impacts (over a much shorter period of time) but each has lead to it’s own reforms, changes in society and our understanding of the world. Those media too though were very limited in terms of who they were available to.

    Now we have a media that is open to anyone, anywhere, regardless of their income level, political standing or point of view. How far would the Wikileaks video of recent fame have gotten if it was just a videotape in someone’s hand? Even once it was out online most traditional news organizations were slow to pick up on it and decide what to do but at the end of the first day millions of people had seen it and traditional media couldn’t simply ignore it – though a few have chosen to downplay it.

    I can’t say that the internet and social media won’t have negative impacts. But I can say that a world with Twitter is better than a world without it and our chances of surviving and prospering as a species and a society are better with the internet and social media than without.

  3. Bill D April 7 2010 @ 10:41 am

    Hi Justin:

    Thanks for the comment. A full reply will come this evening.

    Bill D.

    – – – – – – – –

    OK, I’m back.

    Justin, why are you trying to compare mainstream news organizations on Twitter to the discussion of ideas by individuals and groups?

    In my bringing up flaws with Twitter as a forum for discourse, you respond with a critique about the structural flaws of debate within the MSM and the MSM on Twitter. Those are two different topics.

    But in some ways, the problem is the same for individuals and MSM orgs. For example, Cross-Country Checkup, on CBC Radio One, will likely have more potential callers on a given topic than it will ever have time to handle in its two-hour slot.

    However, back to Twitter.

    I once facetiously tweeted that I followed more people than @aplusk. Actually, I still do, 562 to 341.

    But can someone as wildly popular as Ashton Kutcher really follow 4,732,229 back and have a one-to-one relationship with them? No.

    He’s broadcasting.

    Malcolm Gladwell, the self-described curious journalist, has 51,887 followers as of tonight. He follows 8 accounts back. He doesn’t follow even one living soul.

    People who have 30,000 followers and who follow 30,000 in return — do they really give a shit what those whose accounts they are following have to say? I say no.

    If an Internet marketer or SEO ninja with those kinds of numbers shows up on my follow list, I block them. Why pad my follower count with people who really don’t care what I have to say?

    I suspect a lot of people don’t mind being followed by such accounts because at least they are being followed by somebody. My guess is many people quit Twitter because no one wants to listen to them (it may well be they don’t have much to say, but that’s a different matter).

    As to real convos and real debate about real ideas (or even real observations), I said what I have to say in my post.

    I’m glad you’re excited about the Internet and social media, but there’s nothing either in this post or anything I’ve ever written to suggest that I think social media is uniformly bad or should be banned.

    I would note I used the final portion of my post to suggest how to improve the quality of exchanges and allow Twitter to live up to its potential.

    Bill D.

  4. brian moffatt April 7 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    let me throw this into the mix.

    interesting read some seven years on.

    and this:

  5. Bill D April 7 2010 @ 11:04 pm

    Hey Brian:

    Thanks for stopping by. I’ll check out those links you left — they look interesting.

    I think you’re a bit harsh on Twitter & Twitterians in your first comment.

    I learn a lot every day from people on Twitter. And most days I quite enjoy a well-crafted witty tweet.

    I guess where I get frustrated is when the medium doesn’t live up to its potential on serious subjects.

    Bill D.

  6. brian moffatt April 8 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    let me try to break my responses down into several easy to digest modules if i might.

    was i being inflammatory? :)

    i love twitter and use it every day in many ways and it is a great tool for spreading information. but i get what gladwell is saying and i am not even a fanboy. and i think social media is strong enough that it can take a little criticism where it seems some of its users cannot.


    i think you have absolutely nailed the structural problem with having a debate/discussion/convo on twitter.

    let’s stick with doug saunders on this.

    yesterday saunders tweeted something about the wikileaks video being porn. i responded with what i thought were some valid tweets. no response. (note: i have engaged with doug on several occasions so i do not think he was ignoring me and i did not feel slighted especially when i saw the pounding he was taking from others. most of his responses were to his pals, which is understandable.) the point being my responses were not being read by his readers/followers. twitter – in its very structure – is exclusionary.

  7. brian moffatt April 8 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    re: anonymous commenting on news-sites.

    i’ve done a 180 on this topic, once in favour of anonymous comments believing it might encourage the shy, the reserved, or otherwise to join in as they say. but now…it’s like walking into a washroom stall…i could be crude here, but as this is you comment section on your blog i’ll restrain myself.

    comment sections on news sites have been effectively rendered useless. they could easily be done away with and replaced with much more sophisticated mechanisms that might more accurately gage reader response on any topic. but then again that could be said of many of the mainstream news sites and their writers as well, i suppose.

    at the end of the day you own your words.

  8. Bill D April 8 2010 @ 10:12 pm

    Re: Twitter:

    No, you weren’t being inflammatory. :)

    In any event, I like head-on clashes over real issues/ideas. If someone is just being stupid and/or a troll, that’s different.

    Doug Saunders has about 2,300 Twitter followers.

    By and large, he’s pretty chatty. Seems to talk with a wide range of people.

    But if you want to say something controversial, you run the risk of fighting a rhetorical war on many, many fronts.

    It’s very difficult for someone with a relatively high follower count to coherently maintain simultaneous convos with a large number of people.

    I once got into it with three different people, and it was tough.

    You wrote:

    the point being my responses were not being read by his readers/followers. twitter – in its very structure – is exclusionary.

    Your tweets are read if your followers and his followers overlap.

    There used to be an option where your @ replies could go to everyone. Apparently, this confused newbies, so Twitter killed it (see this TechCrunch article from May 2009).

    But it used to be a good way to find new voices on Twitter.

    In your case, the change left you yelling at that Saunders fellow on Twitter TV.

    And unless the Saunders figure in such cases is generous with retweets, his followers only see a fraction of the overall convo. Not optimal.

  9. Bill D April 8 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    Re: anon comments

    I think anonymous can work in a self-policing community, but the comments section of a newspaper or other news websites aren’t such communities.

    Here’s a tweet from today:

    RT @kady … Toronto Star allegations “complete mischaracterization” / check out the hi-value anon. comment.

    And here’s the comment from “Punisher63”:

    Good I hope they sue the Liars and catch a few Lying Liberals with their fingers in the cookie jar ,and as usual the CBC libeeral Propaganda machine will just keep on with the lie like it was the truth , like the Whole Detainee Torture Lie show .What do you expect from a Toronto based Lying News Tabloid show .

    As a Canadian I would like not one cent of my tax dollars to go to this corrupt anti-Canadian Broadcaster.

    To the credit of the audience, it got 151 thumbs-down and only 16 thumbs-up.

    Now, would “Punisher63” feel free saying the same thing if it were attached to his real identity? Is there a really solid reason why he/she should be protected by anonymity?

    To me, an anonymous commenter should be like an anonymous source — something one should see rarely and only for the most important of reasons.

    There’s been some good stuff written on this topic in recent weeks. I’ll try to pull it together into a post.

One Ping

  1. uberVU - social comments April 7 2010 @ 12:51 pm