Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Are Tweets Newsworthy?

An entire industry is growing up right now, trying to make sense of social media, and just when the business starts to get a handle on it, the beast breaks the chains and defies logic.  I raise this issue because there is a current trend in traditional media to draw conclusions and assessments on public attitudes based on Twitter activity.

More to the point, the increasing reliance on Twitter posts as a source for news content raises two questions: Are “tweets” newsworthy?  And, do a lot of tweets that follow a particular narrative constitute an accurate reflection of public opinion?

If by now you’re still not familiar with the language of Twitter, a tweet is an online post.  When enough tweets focus on a particular subject or person, the words begin to “trend.”  That means they rise to the surface as the most active word or terms being tweeted at a given moment.

Twitter is very much a real-time media channel, so what may be trending now may be old news in a couple of hours. 

Brent Musburger creates a flutter

Let me use a real-life example to illustrate.  On Monday night during the NCAA national championship football game between Alabama and Notre Dame, ESPN announcer Brent Musburger made a few flattering comments about the Alabama quarterback’s girlfriend – who happens to be Miss Alabama USA  – when the television cameras panned to her during a break in the action.  This is not unusual, but Musburger may have lost his focus for the moment.

As the camera focused on Miss Alabama Katherine Webb in the stands, the announcer said, “I’m telling you, you quarterbacks, you get all the good looking women.  What a beautiful woman. Wow! Woe!”   

Within seconds, Webb’s name started to explode on Twitter.  Before the game, she had a little more than 2,000 Twitter followers.  By the end of the night, she had over 120,000.  It’s two days later and she’s got over 218,000 followers. 

It must be noted that the tone of many of the tweets pointed out the general awkwardness of Musburger’s stated admiration for the young woman, 50 years his junior.  This is typical for Twitter and other social media.  When something spontaneous happens in the media, or a viral development happens online, or breaking news occurs involving celebrities or people, there is a tidal wave of sarcasm and people taking potshots. 

While there are many examples of heartwarming stories going viral online, it seems the majority of social media happenings have something to do with someone saying or doing something, and then the social media universe overreacting, oversimplifying, and overdoing it with criticism.

The flip side of this is when the subject is cute (as in puppy), adorable (as in little children), or attractive (as in Miss Alabama USA).  In these cases, the Twitter-verse stumbles over itself in admiration.

After Musburger made Webb a Twitter sensation during the national championship game, one NFL football player watching the telecast decided to send a private message to her using Twitter.  Apparently, unbeknownst to Arizona Cardinals’ Darnell Docket, it wasn’t private at all.  He posted a public tweet that invited Webb out on a date.  Needless to say, he didn’t use spell check.  His tweet:

“[W]hen gave over, lets go to wing stop then King of diamond.”  As a sidebar, he seemed to say, ‘When the game is over, let’s go to get some wings and then to a strip club called the King of Diamond.’  He also posted his actual phone number.

Given the distance between Arizona and Miami, where the game was actually happening, we can assume to some extent it was a joke… I think.

This kind of bizarre activity has become commonplace on Twitter.  People who have become Twitter fanatics are at once entertained by the social media channel, as they are the entertainers themselves.

Does Twitter deserve the credibility it gets?

This brings me back to the traditional media’s treatment of Twitter and the credibility it’s been assigned as representing public opinion.

Today when you watch a live television newscasts, you may see a graphic at the bottom of the screen where Twitter comments from anyone and everyone rotate, giving up an up-to-the-minute sense of what the Twitter-verse thinks about the subject of the story being discussed.  This is a simultaneous delivery system.   We’re to assume that the opinions of anyone with a Twitter account below are just as worthy of our (divided) attention as the content being provided by a professional journalist. 

The television news executives are caught up in the interactivity of it all, along with the notion that what they think they are presenting to us is a real, live focus group on the subject at hand.

While I find the process of reading tweets while trying to listen to a television presenter distracting, the real issue here is whether social media users and their instantaneous reactions provide an accurate representation of public opinion.

From what I’ve read, the most active social media users fit within some very defined demographics. Within those demographics, the more active users tend to fit within certain identity profiles.  Their worldview may not be uncommon, but in the context of the general populous, they may in fact be a minority.  And even then, regardless of their serious opinions, their Twitter posts are often half-serious at best. 

I heard one media professional sum it up this way, “It’s like we’re being forced to watch college students scribble on bathroom stalls on live TV.”

When traditional media takes its cues from social media, it is highly likely it’s basing its assumptions on the tweets of a microcosm of the public and then using those tweets as the basis for generalizing all  public attitudes with regard to a given story or issue. 

To be sure, there are times that it is newsworthy when a public figure uses Twitter to weigh in on a public issue.  But not every celebrity tweet merits the coverage.  On the man-on-the-street approach to tying Twitter into a news story, I fear that has already reached the saturation point and is counter-productive.

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