News Industry on Twitter: Full of Crazies, Not Reliable

By Timothy M. O'Brien
April 28, 2009 | Comments: 2

Again, we see more coverage of Twitter in the mainstream media that tends to side with the view that Twitter is a hysteria producing maelstrom of Fear. CNN has an article that quotes Foreign Policy's Morozov:

Morozov said there's incentive for Twitter users to post whatever is on their mind because it helps them grow their online audiences.

But in an emergency, that tendency means people write about their own fears of symptoms and widespread deaths, which can create an uninformed hysteria, he said.

As I wrote before, I think Morozov's view of Twitter is a broad generalization that doesn't apply to the average Twitter user. While I agree that the primary motivation for shameless marketing users is the number of followers gained, the majority of Twitter users are focused on a much smaller community of colleagues. @evgenymorozov himself is following 119 and has 159 followers, is he motivated by a desire to "grow his audience"? Or, like most, does he guard his following list and communicate with a small set of followers? Certainly, if one of the people he was following started to spew Swine mania, he would unfollow? His supporting assumption is that the average Twitter user is an irrational, attention-seeking buffoon motivated by nothing more than a base desire to attract more followers.

Later in the CNN article, it continues to ask PC Magazine writers and CNET editors their opinion of the service, concluding with:

Slattery, the PC World writer, said he generally was excited about Twitter until recently. Now he finds the site to be "an incredibly unreliable source of information."

Twitter not Reliable... what about Blogs? Web Pages? and Email?

Imagine that the article were talking about Blogs, or more generally about "The Web". People with blogs also have Morozov's "tendency to post whatever is on their mind because it helps them grow their online audiences". Does this tendency encourage people with blogs to write entries that "create an uninformed hysteria"? It sure does. Would one say that blogs are "an incredibly unreliable source of information"? In general, one could apply "an incredibly unreliable source of information" to the entire web. Certainly, when it comes to medical advice, the web is full of hysteria and madness.

To single out Twitter and use a certain subset of outlier Tweets as an example of its unreliability is ignore the fact that most regular users of the service exercise control of who and what they follow. Just like most people choose which blogs to subscribe to and which emails to read, the average Twitter user learns to guard and filter an Inbox. A hysterical Tweet from a colleague about Swine Flu is no different than a hysterical email from a friend about the same subject. One man's wild conspiracy theory about the Swine Flu on Twitter is no different from some wild speculation on someone's dusty blog. Twitter does not have a monopoly on unreliable information.

Underlying the criticism of Twitter is an assumption that the average user cannot be trusted to make decisions about which source of information should be trusted and which should be ignored. I would argue that, as Twitter evolves, as the average user dominates the service, marketing accounts and attention seekers will be devalued and confined to an isolated island of autofollowers. To make a generalization about Twitter devalues the very platform that @evgenymorozov continutes to use to share news and information about Swine Flu.

Economics and Control: The Real Story

That same CNN article trumpets by Al Tompkins, a professor of journalism, telling us that health information "needs to be put in context by journalists". While there is certainly a need for context and informed reporting, I suspect this CNN article is more a reaction to an emerging platform that disrupts the way users experience "the news".

Dig deeper, and I think you'll find clues sprinkled throughout this article that the news establishment isn't very happy about the way in which people are conversing and sharing "news" with one another. CNN and other journalists certainly don't appreciate that they are not being given a chance to put the "news in context". Here's a choice quote:

Some Twitter users have expressed concern that the swine flu story is being hyped. Several media outlets, including the BBC and CNN's, give readers and viewers a chance to express their own views about the outbreak

Ah, when a CNN story criticizing someone else's microblogging site takes an ad break to feature CNN iReport while throwing in a token reference to BBC to make it all seem kosher... That's convergence for you. Also, press the rewind button on CNN and find all the instances where they "hyped" some sensational story like Jon Benet or OJ Simpson. This is about control and economics. Yes, there is some hysteria, but what CNN and other news outlets resent is the loss of control. They would much rahter have a series of 24-hour cable news commentators, "Put the news in context" than sit back and watch the uneducated masses engage in direct conversation.

The Success of Twitter During the Swine Flu Emergence

If you want an example of the success of Twitter as a mechanism for distributing authoritative information about the Swine Flu, look at the rapid growth in the subscriber numbers for the @CDCemergency account. The @CDCemergency twitter account users have been able to get notifications about conference calls and direct communications from the federal agency tasked with monitoring and reacting to the crisis. The fact that the followers for @CDCemergency went form ~2,600 on Wednesday to ~28,000 should tell you that people are making a rational decision to pay attention to trusted sources.

Contrary to Morozov and Slattery, I believe that Twitter is one of the most essential weapons that government has to get timely information to the general population in this crisis. As with all human discourse be it written, spoken, or "texted", the medium has its imperfections.

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"Wisdom of fools" was around well before "wisdom of crowds".

To me they have exactly the same meaning: crowds = herd mentality = uninformed masses = fools.

Twitter does have it's share of self-promoting egoist as well as over-reacting users.

However, the majority of those on Twitter, at least that I have had the pleasure of interacting with, are rational human beings who use Twitter for two way communication on a wide variety of topics.

John Moore

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