The evanescence of Twitter debates

By Felix Salmon
December 30, 2010
Rob Beschizza has a very good post on the dynamics of the spat between Wired.com and Glenn Greenwald. For an excellent overview of the fight and what it's about, I recommend Blake Hounshell. But Rob picks up on something else:

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Rob Beschizza has a very good post on the dynamics of the spat between Wired.com and Glenn Greenwald. For an excellent overview of the fight and what it’s about, I recommend Blake Hounshell. But Rob picks up on something else:

The AP-style story format now prevalent at Wired.com makes it less bloggy than readers think it is. This establishes a distance between readers and reporters and restores a traditional tone of objectivity to its newswriting. As it is, Wired’s commenters rarely emerge from a state of inchoate, slavering rage, so there’s no incentive for its writers to enter the peanut gallery. And the blog river itself is polished to such a high standard that casual, chatty posts don’t really belong. Without a local venue where writers and readers can engage readers in non-confrontational discussion, it all ends up as bitching on Twitter.

The point here is that the fight is not like the blogwars of old, despite the fact that both sides are publishing on blogs. We haven’t seen a lot of back-and-forth on the blogs, and the blog entries that we have seen have been clearly worked at considerable length. Instead, the debate has been raging on Twitter, where it’s much harder for an outsider coming to the subject afresh to follow what’s going on and who’s saying what.

The biggest development in the story today comes from Sean Bonner, who seems to have managed to elicit over Twitter the very information that Wired’s critics have been calling for all along. Wired’s Kevin Poulsen told Bonner in a tweet that “The published logs include the reference to a secure FTP server Lamo discussed with the Times”; when Bonner asked Poulsen for clarification that the reference in question was the only reference in the chat logs, Poulsen said yes.

On top of that, Wired.com editor Evan Hansen told Glenn Greenwald in a public tweet that he had reviewed all of the chat logs and that everything pertaining to Julian Assange or Wikileaks was already public.

Obviously, that single tweet is not going to satisfy Greenwald. But in many ways it does more to address the demands of Wired’s critics than the long and carefully-worded blog post that Hansen and Poulsen put up last night. And Greenwald too has noted — on Twitter, natch — that “it’s amazing how central of a role Twitter now plays in these disputes/debates”.

What we’re seeing here is the professionalization of the blogosphere — Greenwald and Poulsen both get paid to blog, as do I — and the way in which that has led to the less journalistic parts of blogging moving over to the informal and freewheeling venue of Twitter. I was happy to take a small part in this debate over Twitter this morning, for instance, but I’m concentrating on meta-issues here, partly because I’m clearly conflicted: I have a big story in the latest Wired magazine, and might well be appearing on Wired.com’s blogs in future, too. On Twitter, such conflicts don’t seem to matter, or need to be addressed, in the way that they do on a professional blog.

This development is not, in my mind, a good thing. It robs from the blogosphere much of its naturally conversational element, which has largely moved to Twitter. Back in 2004 or so, it was easy to follow debates back and forth between blogs just by clicking on links; now, it’s much harder, and professional blogs are much more likely to link to straight news stories or just break news themselves than they are to link to other bloggers. Discussions and debates on Twitter aren’t archived in the way that they were on blogs, and they’re functionally impossible to search for if you’re more than a few months away from the event.

This particular debate is big and loud enough that bloggers are following it, archiving it, and linking to important tweets. But most Twitter discussions never reach that level, and therefore will disappear in a way that blog discussions never did. At some point, I hope that Twitter will roll out easily navigable and searchable archives of all public Twitter streams. But for the time being, Twitter is a stubbornly evanescent medium, for all its increasing importance.

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