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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