This Week on Twitter

Was it last year, or 2009, or maybe 2008, that was branded “The Year of Twitter”? I am tempted to say that it’s an accolade deserved this year too. We’ve had the Arab Spring, the Japanese earthquake, the Royal Wedding and the death of Osama Bin Landen this year, and it’s only May. All these globally significant events have been defined and re-defined in the popular consciousness by the micro blogging site we have come to know and love. In the case of #OBL the event was actually live-tweeted by a Pakistani citizen journalist. 2011, the Year of Twitter again, right?
I think this misses the point. it’s better to say 2011 has already been an important year for events, and Twitter has both reflected and amplified those events.
It is also affecting more traditional news gathering too, so my claim (above) about “the popular consciousness” holds true even if not everyone uses Twitter. This critique by Felix Salmon of the New York Times‘ coverage (or rather, its coverage of it’s own coverage) shows how the organisation is in denial about how social networks affect it’s relevance and it’s reporting. Meanwhile, this article by Frédéric Filloux points to the wider evolution of news. This has a knock on effect for everyone.
In some cases, independent Twitter users are providing a crucial link in the news reporting chain. News editors have been fuming for years about super-injunctions, and their inability to mention gagging orders in their coverage. Meanwhile, Twitter regularly carries the names of those celebrities who have sought injunctions… So why has the main stream news media jumped on the story about one particular tweeter who has explicitly revealed the details of particular super-injunctions? The answer is of course that it provides an excuse for papers to reveal such details by other means.
In this story, apparently some of the tweets are actually inaccurate. Is this a fatal flaw, a reason for heavy censorship? Not really. As we saw earlier this week when a quote was misattributed to Martin Luther King Jnr, the same networks that propagate the inaccuracies are also the place to correct them. Social networks are surprisingly good at doing this. With the rise of the Internet, we have also seen the rise of new social norms and eittiquette. Forwarding on a false story is quite a major faux pas in the 21st century, perhaps more so than printing gossip, rumour and anonymous sources. The major reason for the New York Times’ loss of credibility in recent years was it’s failure to fact-check the anonymous government sources that told reporters that Saddam did have WMD. The paper was ruthlessly manipulated by the Bush Administration hawks, and yet does not seem contrite. If only Twitter had been around in 2002-03, we may have had the tools to more effectively call the news media, and through them, the US government, to account.