What Twitter can’t do

Twitter* has hit the mainstream with a vengeance. The final sign of this was yesterday when John McCain – who during the campaign admitted his own computer illiteracy – did an interview (called a “twitterview” YUCK) with George Stephanopoulos. I guess they both wanted to show how “down” they are with all the latest hep-cat cool jive.

Many people are hailing this as some sort of breakthrough for the media. They also point out how much faster news is reported on Twitter than via other mediums – including the non-Twitter web. These writers seem to be implicating (or maybe I am inferring) that Twitter is supplanting or showing up regular news gathering/disseminating organizations.

While I doubt it is true, I also believe that if it is true we are all totally screwed. Twitter is good for distributing information that people need to know. I get updates from the Boston Police via Twitter – just one of many cop shops now Tweeting.

Twitter is good for the headline, not the actual story.

  • “AIG giving out million$ in bonuses.” Yes.
  • “Rep. Maxine Water’s husband gets bailout funds from Treasury Dept. for bank where he is a boardmember and bank would never have gotten the bailout money unless he was husband of a Dem. on the House Banking Committee.” No.

You can make the claim that Iraq is getting radioactive material from Nigeria on Twitter but you can’t refute it or give it any context.

It is hard to think of a technology less suited to interviewing than Twitter. If you ask me a question and we both know I am limited to a 140 character answer (or can act like I am) I can evade, obfuscate and spin like a maestro.

“Why do u oppose this plan?”

“It will put people out of work (or make America less safe or whatever…”

“But you voted for a similar plan b4?”

“That was totally different in what it was trying to do.”

Etc. Etc. (For a great example of why Twitterviews are an absurd source of information see this post by Derek Showerman.)

As Jon Stewart made clear with the (professionally) late Jim Cramer, you want to give your subject enough time to respond in depth. We call it “giving them enough rope.” It is not just rope to hang themselves with – it is also information that will tell you whether your questions/information are on-base or not.

Another thing  –as any good reporter knows — when interviewing people the long, awkward silence is your friend. Ask a question. Listen to the answer. If it doesn’t seem complete then wait. People don’t like dead air. It makes them nervous. After a while, they start to say more. Try doing that with a 140-characters.

Finally, my favorite derisive comment about Twitter v. Media is that twitter has stories faster than other news sources. Case in point – the airplane landing on the Hudson. Speaking strictly in terms of time-to-dissemination you’ll find no argument here. BUT, as I twittered earlier today (oh irony)

CurseYouKhan people surprised twitter reports faster than Media on some things. DUH! Media needs to get facts. takes time to try & get it right.

Somebody tweets there’s an earthquake in Melbourne – which he knows because he feels the earth shaking beneath him. A reporter CAN’T write a story about this even if he is standing next to the person who just tweeted. Reporters have to find out how big the earthquake is – if it’s a small tremor and I’m standing at the epicenter I am likely to overestimate its strength. Or if it’s the first earthquake I’ve ever been through then I am even more likely to overestimate its impact.

No one ever mentions the false or misleading tweets that news orgs research and disprove. It would be great to track those but you can’t. There is no way to know how many times the media has been offered (or thought it had) a story that was totally false or a misinterpretation and then found out the truth with further reporting. Sadly, that’s one of the press’s most essential functions and one that will never be appreciated.

*What is twitter? It’s a cross between a blog and a bumpersticker. Say whatever you want in 140 characters or less (surprising how much you can get into that space, really.) And have a channel to see what everyone else you are following is also saying in 140 characters or less.

4 thoughts on “What Twitter can’t do

  1. Very true, and accuracy is something that is worth money and won’t die. However, watching my wife Elli watch the riots in Athens via twitter and photo sharing was interesting. Outside Greece, the details were not as well reported. Of course the ability to spin things is clear (and happened in that process), but the ability to suppress or misrepresent facts can also be impaired by multiple first-person accounts. I first saw that with photos and videos of anti-war protests, where official numbers and accounts seemed very skewed to make make numbers seem small.

    Of course someone has to look critically at the data, and that may actually become a lot harder and more critically important as “amateur” sources become so much more common, creating an even greater flood of purported news.

  2. Constantine, I think Twitter is actually an EXCELLENT medium for interviews. However, it may only work well if both the interviewer and interviewee are experienced tweeters. Ideally, both should be accustomed to writing in 140 characters – at a pace rapid enough to make it interesting and engaging while it’s live.

    I participated in the first twitter interview that I know of last month after winning a Shorty Award (http://shortyawards.com) for being an outstanding producer of short content on Twitter. I think it turned out quite well.

    Our interview was much longer than the McCain/Stephanopoulos interview (http://blogs.abcnews.com/george/2009/03/my-twitterview.html), but ours wasn’t scripted ahead of time. It was completely spontaneous, and despite rapid-fire typing, I think you’ll see that our grammar and punctuation is a bit better than the internationally known journalist and would-be leader of the free world. 😉

    You can check out the transcript for yourself:

    Granted, we weren’t discussing weighty topics like world affairs, but I see no reason why you couldn’t. Twitter simply forces people to be succinct. And that’s not always a bad thing.

    @CarriBugbee aka @PeggyOlson

  3. I don’t know how to put this politely — so I won’t try. Your interview is content free. The toughest question you were asked was basically, “how do you feel about winning the award?”

    Given that you are a PR person doing an interview in the persona of a fictional character at a fictional ad agency I am going to hope your post was meant to be ironic.

    If I were a PR person I too would be thrilled at the prospect of someone interviewing my client via twitter. Hell, then I’d be able to answer the questions directly and not have to bother coaching him or her.

  4. Just FYI:

    Carri Bugbee via Twitter to me

    “You ARE cranky. But you missed my point. No matter, I’m not the type who feels an overwhelming need to make a statement. Stay unhappy. 🙂

    Carri Bugbee”

    So I guess we can rule out irony.

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