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.” http://bit.ly/cK1Lql
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.
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.
Twitter is about that democratic. At least with call-in radio/TV, you reach the same audience the host/guest does.
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):
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:
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?
@mathewi Good Lord, Mathew, anonymity takes away any responsibility for bad behaviour!!! Less anon = less bad commenting.
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.