The Impact of Twitter

While scrolling through my Tumblr feed, I came across a brief video on the role of twitter in journalism (via Explore):

It’s from PBS’ Off Book, which is “a web-original series from PBS Arts that explores cutting edge arts and the artists that make it.” It’s pretty cool. I think I might watch their video on animated gifs next.

In the video, four journalists discuss twitter’s impact on journalism. Jeff Jarvis argues that journalism needs to “move beyond the article” and think of journalism as not just producing content but as creating an ecosystem. Journalists can (and have/do) use twitter to not only report facts, but to connect and collaborate with others in discovering new voices, verifying facts and participating in the ever-increasing flow of ideas and information made possible through social media like twitter.

Mark Luckie expands on Jarvis’ claims, arguing that twitter is a global resource, an ecosystem of news in which a wide range of folks can participate and engage in creating and verifying news stories. Among other things, journalists can use twitter to find multiple accounts of a story and to crowd-source their fact-checking. He suggests, “journalists should not see twitter as a threat, but as a helping hand on the road to creating better news.”

As the contrarian, Craig Kanalley worries about what is missing when we rely too much on social media. Social media (interestingly, he never explicitly discusses twitter or its unique features, but talks generally about social media) filters our news; we frequently read what our like-minded friends/those we follow share. This provides us with a skewed perspective. Hmm…reminds me of the Filter Bubble. Furthermore, social media provides too much noise; it needs to be mediated by experts (journalists) who can discern what is important and what isn’t. If, Kanalley continues, “the majority of people” are left to their own devices, they will only want to read/hear about celebrities and “things that are funny.” Relying on “most people” to provide and shape news is, Kanalley concludes, “almost scary.” Wow…sounds like some elitism here. Kanalley also briefly discusses the importance of remembering that not everyone is on social media; journalists must take into consideration those people too. His final conclusion: “The important thing for journalists is that we filter through the noise and surface the most important things.”

Finally, Chris Anderson cautions against mythologizing how good news reporting used to be in the past. Using twitter in journalism is not about destroying old (and better ways), but about recognizing that there are all sorts of ways to do journalism and to be a journalist.

In the last minute of the video, each journalist offers a slightly contrasting view on what it means that twitter allows for a wider range of voices to participate in the news process:

Luckie: In journalism, there are isolated pockets of people who have stories to tell. Twitter really enables them to rise to the top.

Kanalley: There are so many voices out there and we need somebody to say, “this is factual information” or “this is what you need to know.”

Anderson: I don’t know if news organizations can honestly make the argument that we are the best anymore.

Jarvis:  It’s not about having professional journalists and citizen journalists, or paid people and unpaid people. Acts of journalism can be performed by anyone.

I love Jarvis’ last line about acts of journalism being performed by anyone, especially how it shifts the practice of news reporting away from an expert identity, The Journalist, and towards a wide range of practices. As I have mentioned before on this blog, I have a problem with “experts” who supposedly serve as the gate-keepers and sources/controllers of knowledge. Maybe that’s why I really bristled in watching Kanalley’s part in the video. Not only does he suggest that most people aren’t critical thinkers and can’t be trusted to determine what’s important/newsworthy, but he continues to champion The Journalist as the ultimate authority. Moreover, his over-generalized comments about “social media” suggest that he doesn’t even understand twitter and its distinctive features. I’m disappointed that he serves as the critical voice of twitter. Twitter, like everything else, has problems that need to be addressed and explored. Why not have someone who knows and uses twitter to talk critically about its limits, instead of someone who offers up their surface-level, gut rejection of “social media”?

A Tentative Conclusion

I appreciated this serious look at twitter’s possibilities for journalism, but I wonder if some of them still hold true, especially in light of the recent, and very disturbing, changes to the platform by its owners. For more on these changes, see Room 34’s great post: On products, services, and the trouble with twitter. Also, check out Dalton Caldwell’s helpful discussion of how twitter is pivoting (which Room 34 links to). Caldwell concludes: “the future of Twitter: a media company writing software that is optimized for mostly passive users interested in a media and entertainment filter.” Again, my question: how will this pivot affect how journalists use twitter, and for what ends? And, how does it limit/shape who can commit Jarvis’ “acts of journalism”?