The richness of Twitter

By Felix Salmon
January 4, 2012
graphic about social media which has been doing the rounds.

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I’m with Megan McArdle on the scourge that is infographics, especially ones where the sources are in tiny type at the bottom and basically impossible to follow. As Lloyd Alter says,

They take about ten times the space to convey information than a few words might, they are often all about graphic design over substance, they are almost impossible to use compared to conventional text with hyperlinking references, and in so many cases, just wrong.

So I don’t want to give too much attention to the Frugal Dad graphic about social media which has been doing the rounds. The whole point of it is to get inbound links from sites like Reuters, and now I’ve gone and done just that. But at the same time, I’ve been seeing this meme elsewhere, too: the idea that Twitter Makes You Stupid, or something like that.

According to Frugal Dad, “if Twitter were the news” then Beyoncé would be the most important event of the year, and Justin Bieber would be the most important person of the year. Meanwhile, “if Google Search were the news”, then Rebecca Black would be #1, and so on and so forth. Lots of comparisons between pop-culture fluff and important stuff like the death of Osama Bin Laden or the nationhood of South Sudan.

It’s all complete nonsense, on many levels.

For one thing, Twitter is not some massive news borg, broadcasting a firehose of information to a passive public. There are as many Twitter streams as there are Twitter users; some of them include lots of Beyoncé and Bieber, while others don’t. Mine, for instance, contains more news than any individual publication in the world — and it brings that news to me fast, in a witty and personalized way. It’s the single most valuable news source I have — and I work at a the world’s biggest news organization, with direct desktop access to a terminal which would cost you thousands of dollars a year.

On top of that, Twitter is a snapshot of life, not of the news. If you were to listen to all the conversations in your city right now, some of them would be about the news; most would not. Many of them would be about celebrities, because the purpose of celebrities is in large part to give everybody something to talk about — a shared cultural touchstone. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that celebrities are popular on Twitter. But that doesn’t mean in any sense that they’re supplanting the news.

And of course the key question is the degree to which Twitter helps or hinders news from being disseminated — and the answer is obviously that it helps. If you’re watching Beyoncé on the TV, that’s all you’re watching. If you’re tweeting Beyoncé on the TV, then most of your attention is still on Beyoncé, but a fair amount is on your Twitter feed, too — which might well include a bunch of non-Beyoncé news, some of it quite hard-hitting. You can turn off the news when it appears on the TV, and most Americans do. But you can’t turn off the news in your Twitter stream: it appears there whether you like it or not.

The fact is that Twitter is much richer and more fascinating than any news outlet. News is a very narrow slice of our lives; Twitter reflects much more than that. If I might be allowed a shameless plug, my wife, a/k/a @black_von, is showing her 100 Tweets project at the Dumbo Arts Center from Jan 5-15; you should come to the opening if you can on Thursday night. And if you want an idea of the real depth and meaning of Twitter, you’re much more likely to find it there than you are in Frugal Dad’s infographic.

The project comprises 100 tweets, in 100 colors, from 100 different people my wife follows, culled over a period of about nine months. Some are funny, some are newsy, some are banal. All have been laboriously hand-typeset on an antique press at The Arm in Brooklyn. And when you put all the tweets together in one place, you can see a lot about how Twitter works. You can see, for instance, how different tweets resonate serendipitously with each other; you can see the emergence of world events like the Arab Spring; you can see snark and wit; you can see snapshots of throwaway lines which the authors never imagined would be captured for posterity. And, of course, you can see Michelle Vaughan, the artist, herself: everybody’s timeline is a kind of self-portrait.

The point is that Twitter is a platform, and that it’s therefore not susceptible to analysis by aggregation. When you aggregate Twitter, you lose everything that’s important about it, in terms of how it’s used and received every day. My wife’s piece isn’t really about Twitter. But it’s still a much more accurate vision of Twitter-in-the-world than Frugal Dad’s infographic. Which by bundling up billions of tweets into one meaningless mass, effectively erases the very information it’s purporting to present.


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Twitter is for Twits…sorry.

Infographics is just the next bane of ADHD, following Twitter. Before that, there was Powerpoint for ADHD.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

Oh, and the worst abuser of the infographics: fastcodesign. At first I tolerated it, but then, one day they presented a clearly biased infographic, and I challenged the data behind it.

Instead, I got blowback on how the visuals were more important.

At that point, I stopped my RSS feed from fastcodesign, and searched out better sources of design-related feeds.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive

Twitter is the way I keep up with you, Simon Johnson, Mark Thoma, others who can keep me informed, as well as a few friends. No celebrities. :-) Glad you’re there.

Posted by carterj98 | Report as abusive

FrugalDad’s infographic smacks of the whole “Kids These Days” zombie argument that is probably older than civilization itself and has less to do with reality than it did 2,000-years ago. It’s just a tired excuse to be cranky and claim that “this generation” doesn’t get it, or doesn’t understand, or is going to hell… even when things like the Flynn Effect decidedly say this isn’t so.

To make my point, I’ll quote from Montesquieu who wrote some 200-odd years ago, “Horace and Aristotle have told us of the virtues of their fathers and the vices of their own times and authors down the centuries have done the same. If they were right, men would now be bears.”

Posted by Sprizouse | Report as abusive

I agree with the your idealized version of Twitter and the rich fabric that it can be however there is a banal side to Twitter, usually focused around trending topics like #sidegirlbirthdaygifts or #PlacesIveHadSex that make it more like the community bathroom wall, that are as entertaining today as Benny Hill was when I was a kid.

Posted by wdcrozer | Report as abusive

“Mine, for instance, contains more news than any individual publication in the world — and it brings that news to me fast, in a witty and personalized way. It’s the single most valuable news source I have…”

Yep – well put, Felix. t

Posted by tonyfratto | Report as abusive

Felix, I agree with you that Twitter is a rich experience and better than any news outlet. The comparison that people make between news from Twitter and news delivered via other media is frankly unfair. It’s a false dilemma that maybe sounds great in a headline, but has no basis in the consumer experience. Ultimately the emergence of new communication technologies influences how information is delivered in complimentary ways.

However, I disagree that there is no value in analyzing social or Twitter data in aggregate. And your point of view is evidence that these technology platforms have an obligation to bring improved analytics to the masses so we can all better understand what people are saying about topics and not just the top mentioned topics.

What do I mean? I work at Networked Insights and we analyze social data for networks, brands and agencies. When we look at social data in aggregate by topic, let’s say NFL Football, you can begin to ask questions (queries) about that audience and find out what TV shows they’re talking about. Or you can look in aggregate at a product category to understand the brands people discuss and the way they experience those products. Lastly, we examine audiences and discover what’s trending, let’s say with moms, so companies can make more informed marketing decisions, for example what celebrity to place in an upcoming advertising campaign.

I share these examples of how social data can inform media buying, product development, and brand marketing to illustrate one of the benefits in aggregating and analyzing data – the discovery of insights. What’s fascinating is the real-time element. You can imagine how real-time insights will start to inform decision making. The information could be so valuable that it will affect decision cycles converting them from static moments of conclusions to ongoing, real-time calibration.

Clearly, this is an emerging technology capability where today only a limited group have purview into the possibilities. Networked Insights is working on bringing this capability to many organizations and we’d enjoy the opportunity to show you more someday. Maybe we’d be able to sway Michelle’s feelings too. :-)

Hope to see you at the Dumbo Arts Center! Looks like a cool exhibit.

Jason Kapler

Posted by jasonkapler | Report as abusive