Today’s Important Twitter Lesson
Courtesy of Andy:
“the tweet of yours most likely to be read by a star-tweeter is snark about them”
Yep. It’s true.
Markos Moulitsas tweeted his vasectomy today, which makes me think that Andrew Keen was right.
Bloggers, Journalists, and The Downside of Transparency
One of the latest developments happening in both the political blogosphere and journalism today is the newfound attraction to the microblogging service Twitter.
Twitter is simply a service that allows people to send 140-character “tweets” to their followers, and exactly because it is just that simple, users have been able to make Twitter their own, and turn it into many different things. So, for some, like Zappos, it’s a marketing and business tool. For Twitter’s investors, it’s a business plan waiting-to-happen. For celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Lily Allen, it’s a way to reach out to fans. For technologist Dave Winer, it’s a launching point for starting “a billion Twitters,” just as in the beginning, few blogs started a billion more. Similarly, Trebor Scholz wonders if, like the early days of link blogs, Twitter is a “revival of mutual pointing from more than a decade ago“?
Because Twitter is so simple, it can be all of those things, and more. And because on Twitter, you “tune” the list of people you follow, you carve out your own little world there. So whether there are 100, or, as reported recently by Nielsen, 7 million users, it doesn’t matter — Twitter can feel as intimate or as breathlessly overcrowded as you want it.
Most interesting to me, though, is the way in which journalists and bloggers have taken to the form. On a recent post on Daily Kos, blogger Scout Finch outlined why the kos community should be joining Twitter:
What I discovered is a fascinating social experiment. Journalists, pundits, politicians, celebrities, and the everyday Joe are chattering away. Suddenly, the Joe Scarborough’s of the world are interacting with the public in a way they never have before…..directly and without a filter. Whether responding to questions about Morning Joe segments or his favorite soccer teams, Joe is tweeting like mad. And he’s not alone. @GStephanopoulos, @jaketapper, @Shuster1600, @tamronhall, and so on. The list of twittering pundits is growing by the minute. But, what is the appeal for them? Why have they gone so utterly crazy for Twitter? Reading through their tweets, I was struck by how engaged they are with their “followers.” Twitter allows them to interact like they might in the comments section of a blog. In short, Twitter has allowed them to become bloggers…albeit in a micro-form…
…I may still be a n00b in Twitterville, but I’ve seen enough to know that Twitter is crashing the old communication gates. The most surprising thing about that is how relieved the pundits, celebs, and politicians seem to be about the old barriers coming down. Turns out they weren’t being protected by those old barriers as much as they were being constrained by them. So, it is easy to see why the pundits are developing into a Twittering class of their own.
Surprisingly to me, many of the bloggers on Daily Kos either didn’t get, or didn’t want to get, the explanation. So you find comments in the post like, “Twitter is bullshit” and the reply, “I agree it is total bullshit. The best I have seen it described is it seems to be an unusually ‘high noise to signal ratio.’ All updates, no substance.”
Now, perhaps this is a case of the old guard (although calling bloggers at Daily Kos that seems odd…) being wary of the new. Perhaps there is a threat to what bloggers do, and in this respect, their reaction can be seen as similar to the defensive posture we saw journalists take in the early days of blogging.
But the political blogosphere has been largely built through maintaining an antithetical position to the field of journalism — rather than blogs being a parasitic medium (which is often how they are portrayed), bloggers have really come into whatever political clout and power they have today because they’ve taken on the media. Bloggers aren’t repackaging the news; they’re taking it apart and asking why it works the way it does.
Which is why avoiding Twitter seems like the last thing political bloggers would want to do, because Twitter brings with it an amazing level of transparency — it’s groundbreaking, really. As Scout Finch remarks, journalists and TV pundits are interacting both with their audience, and with many politicians. Where in the past, the why and how of journalism were always hidden, today, on Twitter, it’s increasingly out in the open.
And for journalists, that’s also becoming the downside.
Take ABC’s Jake Tapper. As pointed out on TPM earlier today, Tapper began pushing a story on Twitter about Obama (cracking a Special Olympics joke on Leno, which was, obviously, a dumb thing to do…), and then later “sighing” at the “hypocrisy” of people talking about this story.
As David Kurtz at TPM notes, this is the “disease” of the bubble in which journalists live. This is exactly how they operate, pushing a non-story story that will likely get ratings and website hits, rather than doing investigative journalism. And that model is exactly what bloggers have used as a rallying cry for the last 8 years.
Even more interestingly, a few bloggers have noticed Tapper is now “blocking” them on Twitter, whenever someone apparently asks the wrong questions. Or something?
Talk about hypocrisy — here is a journalist whose profession is made possible by the First Amendment, keeping people from reading his public statements on Twitter. It would be stunning, if it wasn’t part of the same critique bloggers have offered about the news media for years.
Scout Finch is right — there is a huge social experiment going on right on Twitter. Fascinating to watch.
Even more fun to take part in.
Update Two: From TPM blogger David Kurtz: Tapper, in what I guess is a Twitter equivalent of a peace offering, started following my Twitter feed this afternoon, and I am now able to follow his again. He twittered: “tpm is unblocked. My bad”
Brave new world…
[Note: This has been cross-posted on my blog at MediaCommons, a new “digital scholarly network.” Really good stuff over there — please check it out!]
Intimacy Without Communication
Ezra Klein today makes a good observation about Congress’s newfound love for Twitter:
…this is the problem with the public sphere’s quick embrace of Twitter. It’s intimacy without communication. McCaskill doesn’t actually say anything in 140 characters or less. The illusion of transparency comes because in everyday life, we only hear about the dinner plans of people we actually have a relationship with. What’s useful about intimacy, however, isn’t the exchange of trivia but the access to different perspectives. And I’d really like to hear her perspective! It would be rather nice if senators and congressmen routinely wrote posts explaining their thinking on major issues. A public service, even. Instead, they’ve all embraced Twitter.
This is a fairly nuanced point, and in certain respects it’s true. Twitter affords a level of intimacy rarely found, historically speaking, in public media spaces. The rise of networked publics and social media, though, has ushered in a ratcheting-up of public intimacy, turning upside down our previously held notions of public and private. In fact, even before Web 2.0 became a buzzword, theorist Pierre Levy, in his 1998 text Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, spoke of a “moebius effect,” the “transition from interior to exterior and from exterior to interior” when our world is virtualized through the mediation of computer technology.
Social media certainly has this effect, and Twitter may be the moebius effect par excellence. There is something about the medium that is very personal; it does feel transparent, and McCaskill’s deft use of twitter — mixing her professional life as a Senator with her personal life as a Mom and college basketball fan — seems like the “right” way to use Twitter.
But it’s not as simple as Klein makes it, because he seems to be generalizing something about the practice of using Twitter and a de facto incompatibility with “communication” — I don’t think that’s true.
What is true is that Twitter can be as communicative a medium as you want it to be. In other words, McCaskill’s tweets don’t say anything because she’s not saying anything in them.
Furthermore, the 140 character limitation Klein points to — the idea that just because a tweet has 140 characters you cannot saying anything with it — is a sort-of red herring, for two reasons. First, there is no rule that says you cannot use more than one tweet to say something — I’ve had plenty of good discussions on twitter, but they required multiple tweets. In this case, Twitter becomes more like a public chat room, than a series of people answering the question, “What are you doing?” Second, and related, is a point that’s been made elsewhere: what’s said on twitter is often just a part of a larger conversation, with users linking to, and commenting on, blog posts and newspaper articles, or “live-tweeting” events as they happen. (And to be sure, McCaskill, along with many other public/celebrity types on Twitter, does not use it in these ways…)
There is no doubt that Twitter creates a feeling of intimacy between users, but there is no reason why that must preclude a medium where communication — the exchange and debate of viewpoints and ideas — cannot happen.
Making Sure Popular Twitterers Stay Popular
WeFollow is a new site, that is supposed to be a user-generated Twitter directory. The idea is you send it three hash tags that describe you, and you get placed in their directory with others with the same.
Looking at the front page, though, WeFollow simply serves to highlight the most popular people using twitter — it’s a list of the same people we always hear about, like Ashton Kutcher and Shaq and Kevin Rose (hmmm….he started the site.)
Not sure what the purpose is, though. Seems redundant.
The End of Twitter: Barbara Walters Edition
Gawker, today: Did Barbara Walters Kill Twitter?
Twitter, a message-blasting site rendered infamous by its downtime, is out of service once more. Who killed it? We’re blaming Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg.
According to Tweetscan, an independent website which indexes and searches “tweets,” the 140-character updates sent by Twitter devotees, the two were discussing Twitter on their ABC talk show, The View…
Surely the end of twitter.
Ross Mayfield today raises (via Clay Shirky) another issue that is, I believe, the inevitable outcome of what I mentioned in my previous post, about the end of Twitter:
But you may have noticed a rise in @reply spam. Real and fakester accounts are being set up and using @replies to get messages into the view of users who aren’t following them. Some marketeers have seemingly mastered the meeting, like the ShamWowDude (not to be confused with the ShamWowGuy).
Twitter already fights the good fight against phished Avatars, but the war is escalating and changes are inevitable. They have the advantage of being able to kick bad users according to their policy. And disadvantages given what Twitter is (its hard for me to imagine traditional spam filters applied to neartime communications at this scale).
The Twitter spambots have always been on the site, but as noted above, it is intensifying. This is the inevitable outcome of the mainstreaming of twitter.
Twitter’s a business; like any other, it needs to make a profit. But as it grows, and as the pressure to find ways to monetize increase, we will have much less space to talk, and debate, and converse, as our tweets are increasingly co-opted for corporate interests.
Newspapers, Too, Are Parasitic
The latest piece from Paul Starr in The New Republic is well worth the read. Titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” Starr examines the “death of newspapers,” as the economic realities of both digital publishing (i.e., online journalism efforts such as HuffPost and TPM) and the reliance on a shrinking advertising revenue stream are putting newspapers out of business all over the country.
There’s one point made, though, that I think is worth examining a bit. Starr states that while markets generally “under-produce public goods because private incentives are insufficient” to fully pay for the benefit to everyone, because newspapers play the role of an intermediary, they “have been able to produce this particular public good–newsworthy information, necessary to hold government accountable–on a commercial basis.”
Today, this model has been uprooted completely, as blogs and wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms allow cheap publishing of information. Here, Starr discusses Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks“:
The non-market collaborative networks on the Web celebrated by Benkler represent an alternative way of producing information as a public good. Before Wikipedia was created, hardly anyone supposed it would work as well as it has. But it has severe limitations as a source of knowledge. Its entries, including news items, are re-written from other sources, and it does not purport to offer original research or original reporting. The blogosphere and the news aggregators are also largely parasitic: they feed off the conventional news media. Citizen journalists contribute reports from the scene of far-flung events, but the reports may just be the propaganda of self-interested parties.
So this is what needs to be unpacked, because the above statement completely ignores the extent to which all media are parasitic. This is a point I’ve made before:
If bloggers are parasitic, then so are the opinion pundits, talk radio hosts, and television broadcasters. The latter, in fact, is quite common, or at least seems so. For example, recently The New York Times front-paged an article that took on Obama’s charge that McCain would be a Bush third term. Later that day, on CNN, here’s Wolf Blitzer:
Democrats say, if you vote for John McCain, you will really be voting for a third Bush term. So, how true is that? Mary Snow is looking at the similarities between the candidate and the president.
Any attribution to the NYT?
And newspapers aren’t exempt from this charge. Today, the Washington Post published a story about Obama’s not-SOTU last night — a story created by simply reproducing tweets from “media figures.”
No reporting. Just looking stuff up in Twitter and publishing it.
The Washington Post isn’t alone. When New York’s Governor Elliot Spitzer fell from grace, The New York Times wrote a piece solely comprised of comments from various blogs. The story is filled with attributions such as “the anonymous poster wrote…”
While it’s certainly true that much of the blogosphere is about linking, and commenting on previously-published articles from newspapers and other news media, there is original reporting that gets done. Jay Rosen’s 2007 L.A. Times op-ed has a decent list.
The point of all this is not to “prove” one form or medium or model is better than than the other. A free press is important to a democracy — the central point of Starr’s article — and when the State doesn’t have a check and balance in place, corruption ensues. Quite frankly, we need all the media we can get, and while there is certainly a tension that exists between new media and old, the users of these sources of information — the citizenry — are better off. (That said, people certainly need new literacy skills to take advantage of all this new media.)
But this point about the blogosphere being parasitic really sticks at me, and is an unfair charge.
Putting newspapers in a privileged position of “original” while blogs and wikipedia are “parasitic” can only be done by ignoring the realities of the news business today.
The End Of Twitter
Twitter’s popularity has exploded, which can only mean one thing: The End of Twitter.
First, I should state explicitly: Twitter is great. I love the fact that I can hear from (and even talk to…) well-known people like Jamie Oliver and Mark Bittman and Howard Rheingold, and that I can have lots of fun conversations with the people I’ve met on Twitter. (Mostly, we talk about bacon.)
It’s actually not a bad thing that so many people have found out how great twitter is. The problem here is not that the celebs have invaded (Britney? Really?), or how the journalists can’t stop livetweeting from pressers. Though that is part of it. As I’ve said before, Twitter kind of feels now like someone invited all our parents in…it’s no longer a thing that makes people think I’m weird when I’m talking about it.
The real problem is that when Twitter appears in The New York Times on a weekly basis — as it now does — or when NBC’s David Gregory is teaching people on the air how to use twitter — which he did — or when MC Hammer is on Good Morning America talking about his tweets — which he was, these kinds of cultural events mark the fact that Twitter is officially mainstream, and because of that, there will be even more pressure for the people who run Twitter to monetize our tweets. That’s the problem.
This is the same pressure Facebook is under, which is why you saw the second major take-your-users-for-granted privacy outrage committed by Facebook this past week, as they attempted to use their Terms of Service to claim ownership of everything you ever do or say or post on their site. Forever.
Because how else are social networking sites going to make money? Clearly advertising isn’t going to pay the bills — from a recent CNN/Money piece on Facebook:
Online advertising growth is expected to decelerate in 2009 from 17.5% last year to just 8.9%. And historically most of those ad dollars have flowed to portals and other online destinations, not experimental sites and social networks like Facebook…attempts to sell traditional online ads on Facebook and other social-networking sites have failed miserably: Banner ads can sell for as little as 15 cents per 1,000 clicks (compared with, say, $8 per 1,000 clicks for an ad on a targeted news portal such as Yahoo Auto) because marketers know that members ignore them.
So what’s the alternative? We probably don’t know yet, but certainly copyright claims like Facebook’s are going to be part of any corporation’s market plan.
And, even though it’s not a money-maker, we’re still going to see more advertising. The folks who run Twitter have admitted they have no idea how to make money off it (or have implied that…), and are toying with ideas such as charging companies who use Twitter for marketing and customer service. But I find it hard to believe that we’re not going to eventually end up seeing ads as part of the twitter stream that comes through. (Third-parties like Twitterific already do this — why would TwitterCorp just give that away?)
The exploding popularity of Twitter isn’t really a problem from a day-to-day usage perspective — with Twitter, you’re not forced to listen to anyone, and you can tune the list of people you follow to hear from only people who interest you. In fact, Howard Rheingold recently remarked that “Twitter feels like the early days of the Well — sense of community, reciprocal knowledge exchange, group formation.” And I would agree — it’s a great place to connect with people, to share ideas, to debate politics. (And to tweet about food!)
But from a business perspective, there will be more pressure on the company to turn a profit, which will likely lead to the same kind of take-your-users-for-granted decision-making that we saw in Facebook last week.
So I think at some point, we’re going to need to find the next big thing. Hopefully it will be something that incorporates the notion of FOSS. Or FLOSS.
Or whatever you call it.
Text Still Rules
Despite the fact that I’ve been complaining lately about how much Twitter has already jumped the shark — with the influx of journalists and celebrities that are giving the site the feel of having your parents chaperone your party — the success of Twitter is making plain that text still rules as a media platform.
And it’s not only Twitter. Recently, The New York Times ran a piece on the art of the Facebook status:
Status updates are part of a Twitter-like feature that induces members to publish their answers to the question “What are you doing right now?” Responses, which are confined to 160 characters, then show up on the Facebook home pages of the updater’s friends.
…People point out that there’s a significant sleight-of-hand in every status update, because the real answer to “What are you doing right now?” is always just “Updating my status.” But the current friendliness of handheld devices to Facebook (and Twitter and MySpace) has made it more likely that when a pal — the Jägermeister-besotted Sean, say — writes that he’s stumbling home, he is stumbling home, right then, and simultaneously apprising his friends via his mobile.
Personally, I don’t care for Facebook, at all, but I do enjoy reading status updates (from what few friends I have on there!). And as the Times piece suggests, Twitter is like the Facebook status feature, minus all the rest of Facebook’s crap (which is why I like Twitter).
The point of all this is to say that text, perhaps the most “boring” of all media interfaces, is actually experiencing a huge surge in attention and popularity these days. One would think, in our Internet-crazed, multimedia world, it might not be the case, and, indeed, last year, there was a lot of buzz about how video comments were making their way onto blogs, and how this would change the way people interacted in the blogosphere. As far as I can tell, though, they haven’t really taken off. At the time, I noted just how clumsy video comments are, and how much more fluid a text-based comment system is:
Part of the experience of participating in a blog’s community is this flow, a rhythm that develops as you read through the comments: you scroll past some, you read through the one’s from people you know, you find key words that catch your eye. Reading through text comments, frankly, is much quicker and “smoother” than clicking on video comments. The fact that it all happens inside your head has everything to do with why reading isn’t as jarring as the videos…
Obviously, a counter-argument can be made here by noting the preeminence of television viewership numbers, or the huge success of YouTube, but I do think that the text-based interface of Twitter cannot be ignored — it’s interesting just how compelling the simplicity of 140-character chunks of thought can be, and just how much real conversation and debate can take place in what may, at face value, seem like such a “limiting” media environment.
Why is this so? I’ll leave speculation on this for another post…but some quick thoughts would certainly have to include both the textual “art” of twitter (that is, it’s actually quite a challenge to come up with 140-character chunks of thought), as well as the kind of bodily, sensorial experience (an experience that Clive Thompson calls a “sixth sense“) that is created through Twitter’s media platform.