A whale of a fail

Sometime in the 1990s, one of my colleagues at The Commercial Appeal proposed creating a sort of anonymous messaging board in the Atex system, allowing staffers to post questions and concerns about the newspaper. It was a way, she said, to prompt useful discussion about change in a newsroom where some saw management as unapproachable and inflexible.

The idea had a promising start, then quickly descended into personal criticism and recriminations. The editor pulled the plug.

That long-ago experiment came to mind while I was thinking about Twitter, the micro-blogging site that also appears to be devolving into something useless — or worse.

Twitter, of course, always had issues. A St. Louis communications professor back in 2009 drew a parallel between the clipped language used on Twitter (because of its character limitations) and Newspeak, the language of Oceania in George Orwell’s 1984. The purpose and function are different, but both, at their core, are anti-democratic, he argued. Twitter was replete with bad actors — machine-generated content, sponsored content, trolls — and did a sorry job of addressing harassment, abuse and libel. One recent study suggests 25-68% of the accounts are bots.

That said, Twitter has been a source of entertainment and distraction. I’ve learned the names of colleagues’ pets. What people are eating and drinking and wearing. Whether they’re getting enough sleep. I’ve been invited inside the brains of some unusual — and very unlikeable — people.

For many users, what makes Twitter attractive is the notion that they can become their own news service and source of cultural commentary and expertise; that they can become influential in their own right with pithy commentary, snark and humor — and by sharing other people’s work product. Engagement — users sharing and liking — is their measure of validation.

For journalists, the temptation to break news and “build their brand” is irresistible — so irresistible some even ignore their training in the rush to share an unvetted press release or legal filing as soon as it shows up in their inbox.  

For politicians, Twitter is a clever way to say something without having to talk to anybody — elected officials and candidates, or their proxies, who won’t take a reporter’s call instead issue a statement on Twitter, leaving the public with the false impression that they are responsive and transparent. (Maybe the takeaway here is that journalists stop reporting what people say on social media — until they talk to those people first?)

For activists, the platform has helped them shape instant narratives, narratives that often dissolve after more facts come to light.

Addiction is clearly a factor in why some people are constantly on the site — and why, despite all their handwringing about the new ownership, they still can’t disengage. (I certainly have seen that tendency in myself: my digging through archives, something I’ve always done to research stories, became easier as more archives went online. That spurred a quest to discover something odd or compelling every day, then share it. Would I have done that without an easy platform for sharing? I doubt it. A reminder that a quest can quickly turn into an obsession, just like collecting can easily turn into hoarding.)

The end of Twitter may come as a relief, Ian Bogost wrote recently for The Atlantic, pointing out “social media was never a natural way to work, play, and socialize.” (By the way, I thought the story was interesting, so I tweeted it. Of course.)

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