Increasingly, Twitter has become a source for news. But just how much value should we put in a tweet?
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
Are Twitter messages news? It may seem like an open question, but almost every major news platform has decided that Twitter messages are quotable, newsworthy bits of data, cited and parsed everywhere from The New York Times to local reporting services. Earlier this week, a criminal defense lawyer and blogger Mark Bennet came across investigative journalist Terri Buhl's Twitter account, which carried the stipulation that "No Tweets Are Publishable."
Upon discovering Bennet's post on the legality of her caveat—"ironic and funny because posting on Twitter is publication"—Buhl emailed Bennet a series of curt and intimidating messages asking if he carried libel insurance or had outside legal counsel. Tim Cushing wrote a story about the strange confrontation for the site TechDirt, and Buhl contacted both Cushing and his editors demanding corrections to the story.
Buhl's reaction to her tweets being taken into formats that she has no ability to control or at least contextualize provoked understandable disbelief, but they reveal the lingering uncertainty over just what we are consenting to in publishing ourselves on social networks. As TechDirt discovered, the irony of Buhl's position became even stranger when they discovered she had linked her Twitter profile and all of its tweets to the journalist networking site MuckRack—an artifact of a checked-but-forgotten "I Agree" box.
Twitter is designed not to be part of a permanent fixed landscape of media, but disposable and temporary markers of a person's passing interests.
While Twitter has been, and will continue to be, an important tool in many social and political contexts, it's also clear these uses are being overwhelmed by a deluge of story mongers panning for the flecks of controversy. From Bret Easton Ellis prompting news stories with his thoughts on David Foster Wallace to a restaurant server's message board photo of a customer tip turning into a Twitter phenomenon, there is a self-refuting duality to the way information populates and spreads on the service. It is at once a mental spittoon to relieve one's self of thoughts that slowly take shape but have not become permanent beliefs. But Twitter is paradoxically a powerful accelerant to the distribution of concrete facts pulled from the world of static media facts.
In a recent editorial for Wired, writer and computer science professor David Gelernter described the future of the Internet as a kind of "lifestream." In the old days, media was "space-based," fixed in place and given a suggestion of permanence, like a heavy piece of furniture you could return to again and again. The advent of social media has begun a restructuring of our relationship with the media; it has begun to transform the Internet into a time-based structure, a massive but singular flow one tunes into, "a heterogeneous, content searchable, real-time messaging stream—arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams, and Facebook walls and timelines."
In this sense Twitter is designed not to be part of a permanent fixed landscape of media, but disposable and temporary markers of a person's passing interests. They're not representations of what a person is, but mementos of what a person has considered, looked at, experimented with, or sounded out loud. When these feeds become source material for news, it's not because they contain noteworthy or valuable information, but because they signify status in some distant way.
In a response to Katherine Losse's recent account of working at Facebook, The Boy Kings, Rob Horning observed the social network makes inescapable "the transformation of all captured information into cultural capital, into currency in a status game." The corollary is that everyone watching a person fragment their experiences in a social network's stream become judges, subconsciously testing for weakpoints that can be used to make the case that person's status should be lowered. Anxiety over losing control of one's Twitter stream, or any loose threads of social media presence, are not about the value of the posts themselves, but reactions to the implicit judgement and condemnation each of them opens a person up to.
It is hard to see news stories that pull material from Twitter streams as honest attempts at storytelling. They feel more like plays to transform an impermanent fragment meant to disappear downstream into a permanent fixture of public record—two essentially opposed uses to digital media that are now in direct conflict with one another. All of these grasps to find something permanent in the flow slowly agitates the audience, whose status as a passive reader insignificant enough to participate in newsworthy events on their own, intensifies their alienation and distrust of those who do, even when the fragments of one seem interchangeable with the other. Increasingly, it will become clear that neither reader, reporter, nor the social media user actually benefit from this convolution, and yet all three willingly participate so long as they all continue to feel rewarded, each in their own dwindling currencies.