A Bad Day for Social Media

You may be forgiven for thinking I’m a fan of social media, and, in particular, Twitter.

Headlines like “Twitter: the future of news” and “Twitter, the best thing since the invention of the thong” may have given the misleading impression I thought Twitter was a good thing.

In which case I apologize. The truth is I think Twitter is bumping up against its limits. It’s possibly just a speed bump, but it’s a bump nonetheless.

The problem as I see it is that we thought that social media would scale. In other words, we thought that the more people got involved, the more the crowd would impose its wisdom.

We saw it happen sometimes: Wikipedia, for example, is a benign presence because it (usually, and eventually) forces out the rubbish and allows good sense and quality to take control.

But it doesn’t always work.

Take, for example, Twitter.

Twitter works great for geeky stuff. Fast moving news like an iPhone launch.

And, in some cases, news. Take earthquakes. Twitterers—and their local equivalents–beat traditional news  to the Szechuan (and the less famous Grimsby) earthquakes last year.

But these may be exceptions.

When stories get more complex, social media doesn’t always work. The current swine ‘flu scare, for example, is highlighting how rumor and, frankly, stupidity can drown out wisdom and good sense. As well as traditional reporting media.

Twitter, you see, allows you to monitor not just the output of those people you “follow”—i.e., whose updates you receive—but also to track any update that includes a keyword.

Follow “swineflu” and you get a glimpse into an abyss of ignorance and lame humor.

At the time of writing this tweets on swine ‘flu—updates from Twitter, from someone, somewhere containing the words—are appearing at the rate of more than one a second.

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Screenshot from Twist, Monday April 27 GMT 02:00

Most of these updates are, to put it charitably, less than helpful:

31 minutes past my appointment time, still sitting in doc’s waiting room, probably inhaling pure swine flu.

The humor is poor:

If swine flu is only passed on by dirty animals I’ll be ok but I feel sorry for my ex-wife!

Viral marketing campaign: Swine Flu…it’s the next SARS!

Amid the noise is the occasional plea for usable information:

Can someone tell me how to avoid swine flu? I really don’t want to get it.

Some of it is weird:

Your ad on my swine flu mask. Live/work on Chicago’s northside. Will wear mask at all times when outdoors. No joke. [Message] me if interested.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised about this.

Twitter is a wonderful way to share information. It is immediate and undiscriminating. Anyone can contribute, and a BBC tweet looks exactly the same as a tweet from that guy who lives next door who always has a toothpick in his mouth. It’s a great leveler.

So we believed—and still believe—that it’s a sort of global brain: a way to distribute news and information without censorship and without regard to the importance of the twitterer.

Which is fine if it’s an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack or an earthquake.

But with a potential pandemic it’s just an epidemic of noise.

Some argue it’s fostering panic. Evgeny Morozov of the Open Society Institute writes on the Foreign Policy website that

The “swine flu” meme has so far  that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

I’m not sure that panic is the right word for what is going on. After all, nearly every mainstream media has put swine flu atop its bulletin for the past few days, so it’s actually not surprising.

Panic’s not the word. I’d say it’s more like a babble of noise—most of it poor attempts at humor–which drowns out the useful stuff.

One of the tenets of social media is that the more people involved, the smarter everyone gets. But Twitter doesn’t always work that way.

Twitter is a stream. A waterfall of words. Great if you’re just gazing, but not if you’re looking for information.

The sad thing is that amidst that tweet-a-second cascade are all the links necessary to understand what is going on.

They’re just not being  heard.

Sometimes the system works. A good example is what happened in Austin, Texas, when word spread on Twitter earlier this month of a gunman atop a bar. Within half an hour the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman was updating its twitter feed with the news. An hour or so later the paper was not only carrying what the police were saying; it was actively countering twitter reports of hostages being taken, and of someone getting shot, by saying what the police were not saying.

The reporter involved Robert Quigley, wrote on a blog that

once we confirmed what was actually happening, the rumors stopped flying (or at least slowed down). This is not meant to embarrass anyone – tweets from the public are what often alert us to news event, and they many times have been accurate and excellent reports. But in a case like this one, having a journalist who has access to the police and the habit of verifying information is valuable. It did turn out that the guy did not have a gun, and police now say he was never in danger of harming himself or others.

This worked, because it was a responsible journalist who understood the medium. More important, the volume was not so great that his voice prevailed.

This isn’t, so far, happening, with swine flu. There are news sites posting links to informed stories. And there’s the Centers for Disease Control, with its own twitter feed. (http://twitter.com/cdcemergency, if you’re interested.)

The problem: they’re only updating the feed every hour, meaning that for every tweet they’re sending out, there are about 4,000 other tweets out there.

In other words, it’s a problem of scale. Twitter works well when there are clearly authoritative voices which prevail. Perhaps when the weekend hubbub dies down, this will be the case with swine flu. Arguably, Twitter has done its job, because a lot of folk probably heard about the story not through traditional media but through their friends making lame jokes about it.

But I think, for now, this can’t be considered a victory for social media.

Newspapers’ Challenge

Newspapers have been scrambling to keep up with the world of blogs. In the process they’re actually destroying what sets them apart.

Take this piece from the International Herald Tribune. It’s in this morning’s revamped paper, under the byline of John Doyle—without further affiliation. It’s a good piece, except for a lame ending, but it contains at least four grammatical or spelling errors:

  • “the Scotland” twice (“Darren Fletcher was the Scotland’s best player”)
  • “England, under am Italian manager”
  • “There is a poetry of national longing and a poetic justice being behind the success of the Celtic countries.” Good luck making sense of that.

Now I just put this down to poor subbing. But the problem isn’t that.

The problem is that this piece is actually a blog post. Written by someone who doesn’t work for the NYT/IHT, as far as I can work out. At the bottom of the online version is this:

John Doyle is the TV Columnist for the Globe and Mail in Canada, writes regularly about soccer and his book about soccer, All The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, will be published in 2010.

So, first problem is: does a blog post count as a news article that can be published in a paper as such? And should the reader not be informed that

  • it’s a blog post, not a news piece (or analysis)
  • and that the author isn’t actually a NYT scribe?

The editing is not good, but it’s actually OK if it were a blog post, because it can be updated. Indeed, the online version has been: It’s longer, it makes sense, and the grammatical and spelling errors have gone. Indeed there’s a correction there that signifies the evolving nature of online writing.

My point is this: I paid for this newspaper. I thought I was paying for something that reflected the best of the IHT/NYT’s stable of writers. I didn’t expect to see the space filled with half-finished blog posts by people who may or may not actually be on the payroll. But I certainly didn’t expect to see the stuff pasted in without any further editing on the part of the IHT staff.

Don’t get me wrong. I still love the paper. And cuts mean that subs don’t have half the time they used to to edit this stuff.

But nevertheless, if newspapers are going to stand any chance at all, they really need to make sure that their material is so, so much better in terms of polish than their online counterparts, otherwise us readers will start to wonder why we’re paying for stuff offline that’s worse than the stuff we read online.

Encarta’s Passing: Harbinger of Redmond Doom?

Microsoft has announced that Encarta, its digital encyclopedia, will be dead by year’s end. First off, hands up who thought it had died long ago?

Secondly, and before we get on to the whole Wikipedia thing, I’d like to make a more general comment about Microsoft: its online stuff is awful, and Encarta is no different. There are already plenty of people musing on why Encarta died, but I’d say one good reason is that it’s hard to access and get your mind around as pretty much every Microsoft online property.

What worries me is that this isn’t a small problem anymore. It seems indicative of Microsoft’s’s online strategy, or lack of it, and seems to suggest they’re having bigger problems than we thought.

First, you visit its webpage. Well you don’t actually. The highest result in Google is the online version, parked at MSN.com: encarta.msn.com. Before we go there, you may notice that lower down the search results, past an MSN dictionary—which may or may not be Encarta—and the Wikipedia entry on Encarta (already updated to include Encarta’s announcement) lies another Microsoft site: Encarta the product. (Interestingly, its immediately followed by articles discussing its demise, giving you a pretty good idea of how little Encarta has been discussed or linked to up until now. That such articles could rise so quickly on Google is a surprise.)

The latter website is for the downloadable software. Interestingly, no mention there that it’s a product that is dead. (By contrast, there’s mention of “web encyclopedias”, which it contrasts itself to:

Editorially approved content you can trust. In contrast to many web encyclopedias, the authors of the 60,000 plus detailed articles in Microsoft Encarta Premium 2008 are experts in their field. Your kids get relevant age-appropriate information from reliable sources.

(Many? How many web encyclopedias are there?)

Maybe it’s a glitch but try clicking on any of the links to buy said software and you get an error from DigitalRiver, the online store:

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Another example, for me, of how Microsoft online is a shambles.

Indeed, visit the first Encarta-branded link you see a different kind of logo:

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versus

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and a page that hums with mediocrity: a slice of Flash that cycles between several nothing teasers about nothing articles, tabs above that, confusingly, have one for encyclopedia—so is online Encarta not just an encyclopedia?—and some more pretty lame teasers “Beware dihydrogen monoxide! Relax, it’s just water. What other scientific pranks have people pulled?” better suited to some magazine website.

Clicking on the encyclopedia tab takes you a page that is a travesty of design and revealing about the state of the problem Microsoft faces:

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Two big MSN ads tell you they’re not pushing much ad inventory.The blank middle bit, filled only by the less than heplful instruction “Select a type of article to see a list of categories.” suggests someone there hasn’t done Design 101.

Click on the first link, to Encyclopedia Articles and you’re still hunting: “Select a category to see a list of subcategories.” By then I’m guessing you’ve probably lost interest, both in Encarta and this blog post, so I’ll leave it there. But I suspect that this poor branding, presentation, navigation and lack of non-inhouse ads has as much to do with Encarta’s demise as anything else.

My point: Is this just Microsoft scrambling around to find its way online (still) or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise at Redmond that is going to usher in a slew of announcements like Encarta’s? If so, what is next for the chop?

I’d submit a couple of candidates off the top of my head:  played with Microsoft Office’s Live plugin the other day, that supposedly lets me save and collaborate on documents online. Boy did that one suck! Then there’s FolderShare, which used to be a great product—sharing folders and files online between users and computers—which is now called Windows Live Sync, and which doesn’t seem to work. At all. (I’ve tried it on a few computers, and despite installing the software, you’re still prompted to install it even when it’s running.)

So disappointing. I’d imagined Microsoft eventually embracing and extending online but all I see is a congealed mess of half-products that can’t decide what they’re called, and where they belong. Critical though though I’ve been of Microsoft in the past, I hate to see this.