Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger got some significant retweet attention from the people I follow on Twitter about his article on why Twitter matters for media organizations.
He lists 15 things that Twitter does really well. I quibble with some of his points (updated Nov. 23).
It’s certainly worth reading, and do so before you read my commentary, but then follow me as I backfill with some weaknesses he overlooked, whether deliberately or unwittingly.
1. It’s an amazing form of distribution
2. It’s where things happen first
Twitter can be amazing. The first place I learned about Toronto winning its 2015 Pan American Games bid was from the Twitter feed of outgoing Toronto Mayor David Miller.
Twitter can also be ahead of the wire services on certain news events such as earthquakes. But that’s partly due to the nature of journalism. News organizations generally don’t spew raw information forth. Confirmation takes time, which slows things down. That can be a good thing if it prevents bad mistakes – see The Gordon Lightfoot cock-up.
We should also be aware that many use social media as a disinformation tool.
Another factor to remember with Twitter is the lag effect. I’ve seen tweets get RTed an hour after they were already obsolete.
Rusbridger talks about millions of human monitors out there, but unless you’ve got a lot of spare time, you can’t follow that many people. I’ve heard it suggested that you can efficiently follow up to 2,500 accounts. I find the 624 I follow keep me quite busy. As of this writing, Rusbridger follows 510.
Addendum: Saw this on Nov. 23 via Twitter: Eqentia – Curate your news streams or drown in them.Yes, it is self-promotional, but still worth checking out.
3. As a search engine, it rivals Google
I dunno. Twitter has an advanced search option — one that CBCNews.ca managing editor Marissa Nelson touted at the Wordstock event in October.
If you’re a Twitter old-timer such as myself (13,000-plus tweets since May 2008), try and use it to find your first tweet. Good luck to you. Twitter only keeps your last 3,200 tweets.
That weakens Twitter as a storehouse of human knowledge.
Addendum: Saw this via Twitter on Nov. 22 – Snap Bird helps find old tweets and messages by going where Twitter Search can’t: months back http://j.mp/bFj735
There are services that allow you to back up your own tweets, but you can’t do that with every Twitter account — although to be fair, even mighty Google isn’t a perfect repository of online knowledge.
4. It’s a formidable aggregation tool
I can’t fundamentally disagree. With respects to keeping up to developments in journalism, Twitter tops everything — if you use it every day.
If I just popped in every few days, it would be less so.
It takes some work to make Twitter useful as an aggregator (you should be continually reviewing who you follow and dumping the under-performers). Journalists should definitely be using it to follow developments in their craft and on beats, but I wonder about Twitter’s utility for those with less intensive information needs.
5. It’s a great reporting tool
It can be, but it’s not a magic bullet. Take this tweet from today:
A question for any cineastes out there: Was “The Battle for Algiers” originally filmed in Italian or French?
No responses from any of my 920 followers (some of which aren’t real people in any event). But if people aren’t following you, they won’t see your tweets — and you won’t get answers. Unless reporters are very popular, it might be best to push questions out through the news organization’s Twitter account.
Even then, a Sysomos study on Twitter engagement indicates that about 71 per cent of tweets are ignored. That is to say, no one replies to the tweet or retweets it. An undetermined number might glance at your message or ‘favorite’ it.
For any social media tool, treat it as a supplement. Reporting remains an active process, not a passive one.
6. It’s a fantastic form of marketing
Depends. One of my most retweeted items ever was on chocolate-covered bacon coming to the CNE. A blog post Tuesday on a speech by NBC News digital media honcho Mark Lukasiewicz got exactly no retweets and one share on Facebook.
But it was the top Google search result on ‘Mark Lukasiewicz CJF’ in the immediate aftermath of the session, and is still a top-10 result. I linked to other posts about the event; you tell me which was the best report.
If you say ‘mine,’ tell me how could it have been marketed better on Twitter. Here’s the tweets:
Missed last night’s talk by NBC’s Mark Lukasiewicz on the future of broadcast news? Read my blog post - http://bit.ly/bpv3TM (cct’d)
7. It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be.
I think Rusbridger is overselling things here. If you’re a big-name journalist, you will have a potentially proportionate audience on Twitter (Rusbridger has more than 19,000; superstar film reviewer Roger Ebert has more than 280,000). If you aren’t a brand name and are just doing reporting, you might not get that many people chatting with you.
But from what I can see, most big-name tweeters are just broadcasting. Most convos they have are with fellow elites. You might as well be watching them on television.
8. It’s more diverse
Yes and no. Everyone can publish, but not everyone gets read. According to a Sept. 30, 2010 TheNextWeb article, 82 per cent of Twitter users have fewer than 350 followers – and that says nothing about quality of followers. Here’s a March 2010 Mashable article on Twitter follower statistics.
9. It changes the tone of writing
That is true. A certain style of writing is rewarded on Twitter.
10. It levels the playing field
I think the game is still pretty rigged in favour of those with big names. Would NBC’s Ann Curry have a million followers if she weren’t a U.S. TV news personality? Personally, I doubt it.
I also think Rusbridger misses the office politics nature of Twitter.
The heavy hitters tend to retweet that which reinforces their own views. Want some RT juice? Suck up to them.
11. It has different news values
I discussed aspects of this phenomenon in the following Oct. 20 post: Covering the unthinkable in an age of social media. It was about the Russell Williams sentencing and how journalists were live-tweeting gruesome details of that murder/deviancy case from the courtroom.
Rusbridger poses the following:
The power of tens of thousands of people articulating those different choices can wash back into newsrooms and affect what editors choose to cover. We can ignore that, of course. But should we?
A commercial, for-profit news organization falls out of step with its audience at its peril. But only a small proportion of that audience is active in social media. Are they really speaking for the many?
There are stories that get high online readership but don’t necessarily get much social-media traction. Many stories that have high social value get passed over for stories that are trivial but entertaining.
What is the lesson for journalists and news organizations in that?
12. It has a long attention span
If you use Twitter conventionally, through its web interface, it has a short attention span. When I track my tweets on bit.ly (a URL condenser), they get about 95 per cent of their click-throughs within five minutes after being posted.
If you tweet into an active hashtag, it can disappear off your computer screen in a matter of seconds as new tweets swamp yours.
Rusbridger does offer this suggestion:
But set your Tweetdeck to follow a particular keyword or issue or subject and you may well find that the attention span of Twitterers puts newspapers to shame. They will be ferreting out and aggregating information on the issues that concern them long after the caravan of professional journalists has moved on.
Check out the #cjftvnews hashtag. See how long it stayed active after the presentation ended. But then again, that was an event for journalists.
13. It creates communities
That’s reasonably true. But as I’ve tweeted before, another way to think of social media is as cliquey media.
There is a lot of log-rolling taking place on Twitter.
Read this April 6 post: Ideas, observations, debate, democracy and Twitter
14. It changes notions of authority
Instead of waiting to receive the ‘expert’ opinions of others – mostly us, journalists — Twitter shifts the balance to so-called ‘peer to peer’ authority.
In my post on Lukasiewicz, scroll way down to where I asked him about the notion of friendship and the potential effect that might have on the journalist-audience relationship.
Rusbridger rightly notes that people tend to gravitate to those who they see as being similar to themselves.
I worry about confirmation bias, that trust is coming to mean believing those who say what you want to hear. Journalists need to be trusted because what they say is true, but some commentators have written despairingly that the Enlightenment model of human cognition is a myth.
15. It is an agent of change
As this ability of people to combine around issues and to articulate them grows, so it will have increasing effect on people in authority. Companies are already learning to respect, even fear, the power of collaborative media. Increasingly, social media will challenge conventional politics and, for instance, the laws relating to expression and speech.
Let us remember Malcolm Gladwell’s dissing of social media as a political tool (An excerpt at Why social media sucks as a political change tool).
People might also wish to note Ivor Tossell’s Nov. 8 Globe and Mail column on the Cooks Source plagiarism embroglio, which caused a social media lynch mob to form:
what (editor) Judith Griggs is truly guilty of is copyright infringement with a terrible attitude. That made her the pantomime villain in a character drama – easy to jeer and boo and ridicule when she walks on stage, easier to forget when she leaves and the 15-minute hate is over. That’s what this whole debacle is really about.
It’s possible this episode signals that publishers big and small are being put on notice that content theft is unacceptable and will henceforth be vigilantly policed by the eye of the crowds. The plague of small northeastern food magazines copying articles from websites might finally come to an end.
It’s more likely that this serves as a reminder that crowds are attracted to drama above all else: drama over principle, drama over consistency, drama over proportion. To revolt against small outrages wherever it’s expedient, to laugh at the failings of silly villains where they’re available. If this is the future of crowd justice, we’re all in a pickle.
Rusbridger closed with these thoughts, prefaced by the view that Twitter might well be supplanted as a microblogging/instapublishing medium some day:
But we can be sure that the motivating idea behind these forms of open media isn’t going away and that, if we are blind to their capabilities, we will be making a very serious mistake, both in terms of our journalism and the economics of our business.
I strongly concur. I think, however, we need a clear-eyed look at these new tools and a better discussion on how they might fundamentally change both journalism and the news business.
Here’s some previous posts you might find useful:
- Sept. 24, 2009 – Deep thoughts, by Bill Doskoch (links to interviews on participatory journalism)
- Aug. 4, 2009 – Crowd-sourced editing, indeed
- Jan. 30, 2009 – Mr. Akin de-twitters (update: He came back; David Akin’s got a measly 5,200-plus followers now :) )
So how did this story play?
Two people liked it on Facebook, where I only have 36 friends.
On Twitter (920 followers), two people retweeted it (one of whom is a Facebook overlap).
According to bit.ly, it was clicked on 29 times.
I did engineer my tweet so it would show up as an @reply to Rusbridger, but no word.
He did tweet the following on Nov. 19:
Succinct summary of my 15 Twitter things http://bit.ly/c8av0M
That links to a blog post by UBC prof and former BBCer Alfred Hermida, who didn’t have anything even remotely critical to say about Rusbridger’s post.
About 9 p.m. Sunday, @cyberjournalist tweeted the following:
Why Twitter matters for media organisations http://bit.ly/cgmZ0g
Oddly enough, no response, although @cyberjournalist (we’ve met) was still online.
This is what passes for debate on Twitter about the craft, folks. Like I said, Twitter is driven by the same forces that drive office politics.
Welcome to news-as-office-conversation!
Nov. 23 update
A few other Tweeters who sent out the link to Rusbridger’s original piece ignored my replies to them.
Then the log rolled my way:
In the course of my surfing around tonight, I found backtype, which collected the conversations related to this post.
According to backtype, it got 10 tweets and 57 clicks.
Thanks to all who RTed it. If you have anything to say, be it kind, critical or both, the comments are open. The operator is standing by to take your call.
And on Google tonight? Searching Rusbridger Twitter Weaknesses had this as the top result! I can go to bed happy now.