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Why it's hard to love Twitter

Monday, October 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bigwig editor Evan Smith says he has a reputation for transforming “from a hater to a zealot.” Three examples of things that he went from dismissing to embracing? College football, crab cakes and Twitter. This, at any rate, is what he told a forum full of journalism students when visiting MU last week to talk about his “intentionally non-profit" news venture, the Texas Tribune.

Fascinating though his business model is, I left thinking instead about his Twitter conversion — because he, a person I newly but greatly respect, articulated part of the reason I look dubiously on that bandwagon, despite constant proselytizing from pretty much every direction.

Twitter, for those of you who have been held captive in a well for the past few years, is a tool people use to send out short personal messages, which are often quotidian updates about what they’re doing or thinking. Before Smith’s revelation, he said he boycotted that type of social networking because it is “the height of narcissism.” Amen.

As those words came out of his mouth, there also came a wave of sweet validation, the kind one can only experience after long holding an unpopular belief and finally hearing it echoed by an authority figure in a room full of people who disagree with you. Sure, people have the potential to churn out revelatory haikus, but your average “Tweeter” is more likely to broadcast feelings he or she had following the latest installment of "I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant."

(Certainly this is a point for some self-recognition, given that I’m here publishing my thoughts and feelings in 800 words instead of 140 characters, the Twitter limit. But there is a line — that I hope I’m on the right side of — between offering up some form of substance and telling people that you went to the dentist.) 

Twitter also (inadvertently) promotes poor grammatical habits. Magazines reprint and therefore validate tweets from Demi Moore and other “idols” wherein proper capitalization, punctuation and spelling are largely ignored. Those habits then filter out into the ether, where they become an informal-chic trend that permits the hoi polloi to be similarly sloppy.

Eventually we end up with a stylistic norm along the lines of the tweets from Mizzou football players that were reprinted in Vox last week. “Torn ACL & just engaged 2 the best girl in the world!!!!” tweeted junior linebacker Jeff Gettys. Yes, it's sweet, but the linguistic snob inside me doesn’t know where to start, other than to repeat the mantra of a similarly snobby friend: “Almost all uses of exclamation points, other than in reported speech, should be punished by death, administered with broadsword.” If it weren’t for Twitter, there’s no way a sentence like that would have ever been allowed in the magazine.

The more immature reason I bristle when people start to talk of tweeting — aside from the verb itself being rather ostentatious — is that Twitter gets more attention than it deserves. Sure there’s merit in the Pew Research Center’s study revealing that one in five Americans is on Twitter; it’s a social phenomenon, and we should examine that on a broad scale. But my eyeballs will march out of my head in protest if I read one more story that is simply about someone having or using a Twitter account.

Take the following headlines from the Missourian Web site: “Missouri Tigers Take on Twitter”; “For some worshipers, a Tweet just can’t wait”; “Twitter working for Rams running back.” If only I could get updates on the operational statuses of the running back's email account and microwave oven or bulletins on how he feels about the iPhone. Such stories are awfully hard to distinguish from straight Twitter PR.

What is most frustrating about all my frustrations is that I want to love Twitter; I want to have the conversion Evan Smith did. Why? For starters, when a journalist speaks poorly of Twitter, it’s considered absolute blasphemy. I might as well be a devout Muslim drawing caricatures of the prophet enjoying a pulled-pork sandwich — while in the full swing of a Daytona Beach spring break. 

Imminent black-balling from all jobs I apply to aside, I want to love Twitter because there are, buried in those seas of textual drudge, truly enlightening, credible and funny messages going out. Moments in time, as when people tweeted about the Mumbai attacks, can be frozen and information can be spread in useful, unique ways. Journalists can use Twitter for sourcing, and clearly there’s fun to be had. Refusing to be part of Twitter seems like being one of those people who scoffs haughtily at Dan Brown and misses out on the utter joy of reading "The Da Vinci Code" to the tune of no real benefit.

But then Time prints an article in which Ashton Kutcher compares the inventors of Twitter to Alexander Graham Bell, who not only invented the telephone but helped make flight and air-conditioning possible, and I just want to punch people in the face. Perhaps I’m best off praying for patience and guidance. If I can’t get on board the bandwagon that 20 percent of America is riding, I might well get left behind.

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist for the Missourian and an editor for Vox Magazine. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her work has been published by a variety of outlets, including The Guardian and Businessweek.com. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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Comments

Robert Quigley October 27, 2009 | 4:36 p.m.

Katy,

It's not a virtue to be behind the times. Journalists today do not have the luxury of being proud curmudgeons. Missouri has a great J-School, but I hope the professors there are teaching the next generation of journalists how to use the latest tools and practice new techniques. Twitter is just a tool, but it's an effective one. Ignoring change in our industry is perilous.

Robert Quigley
Social media editor
Austin American-Statesman

(Report Comment)
michael corones October 27, 2009 | 5:06 p.m.

I just don't understand why you would so proudly tout your lack of imagination about this tool. It is an information distribution platform. Journalists should be curious and resourceful. As one friend told me, it has replaced Google Reader in his world; the number and quality of the links he gets through Twitter is better, or at least as good.

Sure, some people tweet about what they had for breakfast. But who cares? Such people can be ignored. For those attuned to its professional uses, Twitter is replete with useful links about news, politics, society, industry news, etc. To write it off as simple narcissism is foolishly ignorant.

(Report Comment)
Steve Woodward October 27, 2009 | 5:19 p.m.

Katy,

Perhaps you would be astonished to learn that I found your article through Twitter. Matthew Ingram, the community editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto and a prolific Twitter user, just tweeted about it minutes ago.

More than 90 percent of the tweets I receive are links to articles that I might have some interest on reading. You see, the trick in Twitter is recognizing that it is merely dial tone, not the conversation itself. For good conversation, one tunes into the people with something to say. For inane conversation, one tunes into people discussing what they had for lunch yesterday. You, the user, determines whom you listen to.

If you don't like Twitter because you don't want to hear about someone's trip to the dentist, that's not Twitter's fault any more than a boring phone conversation is the dial tone's fault. It is, rather, your failing as a journalist to properly understand, master and use a tool that can expand a journalist's effectiveness by orders of magnitude unfathomable only five years ago.

(Report Comment)
Katy Steinmetz October 27, 2009 | 6:55 p.m.

I understand the wisdom in these comments and respect it. Most - about how Twitter can be used in useful and unique ways, especially for journalists - are the exact points I recognized in last few paragraphs. Clearly I'm not ignoring Twitter, nor am I writing it off completely for being imperfectly used. I'm just frustrated by some of the journalism, noise, poor writing, etc., it has facilitated. My overarching point was that I understand these quibbles can't stand in the way of adopting the tool - hence my closing admission.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 27, 2009 | 9:59 p.m.

Perhaps we need to differentiate between the "product" and the "delivery system." Sloppy journalism and sloppy writing in general also existed in the days when writing was committed to paper with a quill pen and set manually to print type. The delivery system has become faster and more sophisticated, but some of the product now being purveyed is truly awful!

I have used the following analogy previously. If you take a fine violin and give it to an accomplished violinist you can reasonably expect to hear great music. Give that same violin to a chimpanzee and you'll be lucky if the violin isn't broken.

There must be something we can do to our educational system so as to turn out fewer chimpanzees.

(Report Comment)
Seamus Condron October 28, 2009 | 12:54 p.m.

Katy,

I echo Robert Quigley's sentiments. Don't fixate on the celebrity culture of Twitter. The tool is so diverse in its uses, you just need to start developing curation and filtering techniques. Twitter is a massive firehose of data. If you consume it that way, you're just going to remain frustrated. You need to be proactive about making the tools work for you.

And when you run into excessive bad tweet form, just pass the offender this gem: http://www.copyblogger.com/twitter-writi...

Seamus
Community Manger
@mediabistro

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 28, 2009 | 2:59 p.m.

What is a "Community Manger"? I've heard of communities, I've heard of mangers (normally associated with animal husbandry), but not a Community Manger.

(Report Comment)
Joshua Rosenau October 29, 2009 | 9:20 a.m.

I felt exactly the same way, but I was more general. First, I was skeptical of the entire array of social media. And so I asked some people about it on a social media site for journalists.

It became apparent very quickly that my point of view about social media, including twitter, was wrong because I was comparing it to journalism.

Social media is not journalism. It is its own thing. They are as different as apples and oranges.

Because social media is not journalism, it can't be justified as the main activity of journalists.

So expecting journalists to become social media experts is not the right way to go.

Instead, I have learned to view it like a professional habit, like brushing your teeth or being well-dressed. I spend a little time on it each day.

Also the better my habits are, the more people I attract.

You mentioned in your piece that tweeting reinforces bad grammar. For some that is certainly true.

But journalists can change this simply by sticking to rules of grammar and mechanics when they tweet.

This brings up another point. Social media is called social for a reason. It allows individuals to meet and communicate individually, not institutionally.

Institutionally, journalist are held to a higher standard of communication that normal people are not.

But, there is no need to alienate yourself or others because not everyone is obeying the same rules you and I are.

By keeping your own social media house in order, other smart engaging people will notice, and the conversation can elevate.

Also, who knows you might impress someone who isn't as articulate or informed into trusting you to tell them about what's up.

That's huge. Social media can help you develop trust with readers, which is a big part of a reporter's job.

Ultimately, because social media is based on the communication of individuals, twitter shouldn't be judged by the vast amount of poorly written, narcissistic messages written by the hundreds of people who use the site.

Instead, it should be judged by the consistency of worthwhile messages posted by a single person.

(Report Comment)
Matt Flener October 30, 2009 | 5:28 p.m.

Katy,

Twitter does not beat a call to a source. BUT it is the single most useful tool I have encountered in my job as a multimedia journalist.

My simple philosophy is this. I tweet about things that add value to someone's life. News adds value. Transparency adds value. It shows I'm human by tweeting about my daughters, and then thirty minutes later tweeting about a big news story of the day.

I hope you follow up and highlight those people who use twitter well, rather than jumping on those who do not.

Matt Flener
M.A. Media Management '07
Missouri School of Journalism
Reporter/Anchor KXAN Austin News

(Report Comment)

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