A Bad Day for Social Media

By | April 27, 2009

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.


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.

11 thoughts on “A Bad Day for Social Media

  1. Jon

    This kind of reminds me of Ong Sor Fern’s (in)famous “I HAVE never, nor will I ever, read blogs” diatribe in The Straits Times. Though at least you use twitter….

    “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”, really? Not to me they don’t I guess I must be doing it wrong.

    Cheers mate….

  2. Jeremy Wagstaff

    Hello Jon, thought you’d be quick to get a bite in. I respectfully suggest I am by no means rejecting twitter, just recognising that it has failed in this instance, and has revealed serious limitations.

  3. Jon

    I know what you mean, I used a pencil once to try to open my front door, couldn’t get it to work, damn technology has always over promised and under delivered.

  4. Gretchen Bender

    Interesting post. I agree with many of your points and it seems to me like this is a case of Twitter imitating life. I know that if I want the facts on the swine flu, I should pick up a newspaper or turn on CNN.

    On the other hand, I’m still going to over-hear a lot of misinformed commuters on the train, and worried housewives in the grocery store discussing their fear and anxiety, pleading for help and information or … maybe even offering to wear my ad on a swine flu mask.

    When it comes to getting the right information – Twitter or not — I’ll still have to weed out the bad and seek out to good.

  5. Juergen

    I would say it has to do with collecting and evaluating information, editing and publishing it. Journalists are educated in and get paid for this.
    I do not have the time to search the few gems in that wall of noise. So I consume the news on BBC and of that kind, edited by professionals. Who has the time to go through all these pseudo-sources?

  6. Michael Leza

    Twitter fails to scale past 30-40 people (maybe a little more depending on how active they are).

    If you are following, say, 30-40 people, you can generally keep up with most or all of them as the day goes on, follow their links, and not get lost in the swarm.

    If you try to follow 10,000 people (usually so that you can get followbacks), you’re not going to read the things people you’ve followed are writing.

    Now, if 10,000 people are following you, you have a platform to communicate with lots of people very quickly and point them at what you want to see. But the communication isn’t two way. If you’re not consistently putting up good content eventually your followers are going to drop off.

    So, twitter is useful:

    1) To keep up with a small group of friends, if they’re all moderatley active on twitter.

    2) To follow a small group of content pushers (famous people, info feeds, etc), which you can do along with 1) without too much trouble.

    3) To push information and links to a group of people of any size

    The problem is that the more you try to do 3, the less you can do 1 and 2.

    Using the trending topics to try and get information is the extreme of what happens if you do too much of 2. The noise is, naturally, unbearable. This isn’t really a bug, though, its a feature. Trending topics is just the twitter version of google’s search trends, which you can look at here:

    Its a good way to see what a country is thinking about at a glance, but reading people’s search terms isn’t where I’d go for news.

  7. G

    Hey Michael,
    i’m a twitter noob,
    but can’t you just set up multiple twitter accounts for those different purposes? wouldn’t that solve the issue somewhat?

  8. Christian

    I like your point about twitter being a giant brain, but I think it’s more like a giant stream of consciousness – and that consciousness is frequently inane, occasionally interesting, often wrong and usually irrelevant.

    So it reflects people pretty well…

  9. Luke Slomka

    i dont think twitter is about facts. there are sites for facts and sites that give insight into people subjective experiance of whats happening around them, it can be fun to get insight into how other see the world, some see swine flu as a buisness oppotunity ie advertise on my mask. others do all they can to spread malcious info, some do all they can to set peoples minds at ease. its like you get snap shots of where they are as people in that moment and thats why i like twitter

    Luke Slomka


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