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.