Wednesday, 24 June 2009

When Twitter Falls Apart

Mount Damavand, Iran.Image via Wikipedia

Some commentators are now, quite properly, pointing to the very real failings of Twitter as an ongoing news source on the demonstrations taking pace in Iran.

This chap, Maximillian Forte, link kindly provided in a comment to this post by Graeme Baker, is certainly in that camp and provides a strong and lucid viewpoint.

It's perhaps interesting to look back over events in Iran and how Twitter, as a community, responded.

In the first phase, Twitter clearly led the news agendas of mainstream media, providing on the ground witness and a diversity of updates that caught the popular imagination - including triggering the #CNNfail protest that eventually forced the channel to react publicly and defend its woeful programming in the face of an important series of events.

In the second phase, Twitter started to clog up with useless ReTweets (RTs) of stale information as the public mood drove the need to be somehow participatory. The students in Iran who had been Tweeting updates fought to keep their links to the world open, but were battling not only those who wanted to silence them but trying to have their voices heard in the babble.

With the almost hysterical outbreak of wannabe participants came disinformation - calls to change your location to Tehran to protect the student Tweeters meant that now anyone could 'Tweet from Tehran' - and so more chaff joined the flow of information. That was made worse by a call to remove the ID of anyone you RTed in order to protect them - effectively depriving any information of a source.

If you weren't in the game early or close to people on the ground, and therefore following the right people, by now you were getting some pretty duff information - and fifteenth hand information, at that.

Phase three has been the complete breakdown of Twitter as a news source. The 'turn your avatar green' movement is a symptom of this. Vested interest has meant that clear disinformation is now being sewn into Twitter, with Tweets claiming that Arabs have been brought into Iran, stabbing people's sisters and so on.

But then Twitter was never meant to be a news resource and, I think most people would agree, can not be relied upon as a news resource beyond the fact that, as a platform, it lets fresh eye witness news travel fast. That first phase is where Twitter is potentially solid gold and where it has indeed led news agendas - not only inTehran, but also in the Mumbai bombings and other incidents.

Once it descends into fads and conversation, there is no news value in Twitter - as, indeed, there is rarely news value in conversations. That's just chattering - what the service, in fact, was built to do. Pointing to the chattering then squeaking about how useless Twitter is doesn't mask the fact that Twitter brought the streets of Iran to the desktops of millions of people across the world.

And CNN didn't.

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the real nick said...

Told you so.

Dubai Jazz said...

The Real Nick still doesn't get it.

Seabee said...

First, I'll admit to bias because I've never been a fan of Twitter. I've never had the desire to plough through messages from thousands of people telling us they've just washed their hair or taken the dog for a walk.

As a news source it had its fifteen minutes of fame but that's now over.

The 'news' we can find on Twitter has to be questioned, as you point out.

You used a key word:

You also said: "Phase three has been the complete breakdown of Twitter as a news source".

It's been killed as a news source, forever.

Vested interests now understand the medium and the news is being managed, and in future will always be. In time honoured fashion propaganda departments will pretend to be someone else to push their message.

As a news source it loses all credibility. All 'news' tweets will be, and will need to be, viewed with suspicion. We won't know what's true and what's managed news.

the real nick said...


Told you so because I am per nature sceptical of any new developments until they have proven themselves - which Twitter has failed to do.
As someone far more intelligent than I (Jonathan Miller) once said: theories should be required to complete some sort of apprenticeship (of time) before becoming facts.

Next time I suggest you all wait and watch for a while before breathlessly jumping on any new (broad)bandwagon that rolls into town.

alexander... said...

Nick, I'm not saying that Twitter has lost all value, so you can put away the Nick Is Right T-shirt for a while yet.

Twitter is an excellent conduit for fast-travelling news - news doesn't always have to have a political agenda and, although I'd tend to agree with Seabee, I have to note that ALL news is subject to manipulation - mainstream media more so than 'new' media, because it's a reader consumption model and therefore people are not invited to participate and correct inaccuracies - look at The Guardian's appalling Greer piece on Dubai, readers appealed for days before the editor grudgingly made online recognition of a couple of the more egregious errors in the piece, which had by that time been read and taken at face value (because it's The Guardian and they're REAL media) by millions.

Now compare that to an error in, say, Wikipedia or even - God help us - this blog. How long do you think that error stays uncorrected? Hmm?

Less than an hour. In fact, Nick will usually be one of the fastest correctees. Which just goes to prove that communities need Nicks.

Which is true, albeit worrying.

In the meantime, Twitter remains a very interesting and useful tool that is highly relevant to news and the task of news gathering - I commend you, particularly Nick, to take a read of this excellent post on Mumbrella.

Dubai Jazz said...


I was just mildly curious about Twitter until recently; there was an event of Journalism Awards or something at the Atlantis and I read awesome live updates from people attending. Since then I'm a fan.

Sand Watcher said...

I guess this debate is valid if one even considers Twitter as a new source in the first place.

Twitter positions itself as a social network and a micro-blogging site. The fact that people who are on it chose to use it as a platform for disseminating "news" or consuming "news", am not sure makes it a fail for Twitter.

Personally I find Twitter as a useful source to point to emerging news or a filtering mechanism for stories already published news but it has to be consumed in conjunction with established media channels and should not be treated as a replacement.

the real nick said...


I read that Mumbrella article. This riposte by "Sir Galihad's" sums up my opinion.

"Yes, yes Renai. Let me see if I can sum up your opening remarks:

“There’s been no journalistic triumphs since Watergate and I’m going to fix all that with my self-promoting yet hard-hitting twitter feed at 140 characters at a time”

"And just how the f*#k was a twitter feed going to help Carl Bernstein? Was he going to sit on his twitter feed all night waiting for some guys to admit that they’d broken into the Democrat headquarters? [...]

Arrogant and absurd."

Graeme Baker said...

Anyone who begins an article with a lazy, tired, cliched analogy is, in my view, A BIT OF AN ARSE.

alexander... said...

Graeme, you have totally lost me there...

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